Day three of Ska Fest started with the terrible news that members of Blitz the Ambassador’s Mighty Ensemble band had suffered flight delays and his show would be postponed until later in the evening. To be fair, we weren’t losing a performance by one of hip-hop’s most exciting new voices and one of last year’s major stand out acts, but we were going to be denied the opportunity to see him outside on the open-air stage at Ships Point.
Knowing that Blitz wasn’t going to be playing during the evening’s first set took some of the excitement away for me and made it nearly impossible to get heavily into Nanaimo’s Dope Soda. They’re a solid, fun band to be sure, but they’re not rocking the unique African hip-hop stylings of Blitz the Ambassador. But, when one expects something like that and is given something else, it can be hard to get past that. It’s like going to someone’s house for dinner and they tell you that you’ll be having lasagna and at the last minute they swap it out for grilled cheese sandwiches and soup. It’s not that the grilled cheese is bad; it’s just not that dope-ass lasagna you were expecting. In any case, I’m glad Dope Soda got to play for a bigger crowd than last year, because they deserve it. I still love their song “Strangers,” a hold-over in my mind from last year’s Fest.
By the time Jamaican dancehall queen Tanya Stephens took the stage, I had reached a new level of anxiety. I had heard rumours that Blitz was going to be on stage at 9one9 before Ms. Stephens was off stage at the Harbour. I was completely prepared to leave Stephens early to catch Blitz, but then something happened — Tanya Stephens performed. That woman can engage a crowd like nobody’s business. Her warm, kind demeanour and winning stage banter had the crowd rapt, laughing along with her as she broke down her views on relationships (She is apparently a fan of open relationships and sharing) and her complicated love of the opposite sex. I have only a passing familiarity with her catalogue — and even that might be giving myself too much credit — but I was completely enthralled with the music, dancing my anxiety away. The ability to engage people who don’t know your music is the mark of a great live performer and Tanya Stephens is most certainly that.
After Stephens left the stage, I quickly ran from the Inner Harbour believing that Blitz was on stage already, but I arrived to a near empty club. So I went for a short walk to gather myself and by the time I got back, Blitz had just taken the stage with his band, was ready to rock and did not disappoint. Dressed in a red suit, Ghana’s finest, Blitz the Ambassador poured his energy out over the crowd and got back two-fold what he gave out. The crowd swayed and grooved to the rhythms and positive vibes that Blitz and the Mighty Ensemble blasted forth. The standout “Wahala,” from his Native Sun record, was the high point of the show with Blitz reciting the dictatorial intro, before rebelling with dance — a jubilant crowd shouting “Get involved!” right along with him. His set was all too short, but still brimming with energy — enough energy that I was done for the night.
The next day began with more bad travel news — J. Boog and Aaradhna were stopped and turned away at the border and would not be able to make their set times before Katchafire’s headline show at Sugar Nightclub. I wasn’t going to get to see the J. Boog/Katchafire collaboration that singer Logan Bell had intimated may happen, and worst of all, I wasn’t going to get to meet and run away with Aaradhna, my newest musical crush. It was a tragedy of epic proportion.
But luckily for me and everyone else at Sugar, David Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7 picked up the slack by playing an extra set before Katchafire took the stage. Surprisingly, Hillyard’s band was made of former members of such legendary bands as the Slackers and the Skatalites. They grooved hard, bringing their rootsy reggae jams to a very appreciative crowd. It may not have been what any of us were expecting, but they filled in more than admirably and really just rocked the club. Their bouncy reggae take on the Tom Petty classic “I Won’t Back Down” was especially wonderful. The whole joyful affair set the stage for New Zealand’s reggae kings, Katchafire.
Last year Katchafire played their headline set at the Inner Harbour stage, and singer Logan Bell seemed a bit bummed out that they were confined inside of Sugar Nightclub this time. But he only let it show when I talked to him before and when he talked after the show. On the stage, the band burned with positive energy, though it hardly took much to get the crowd, that was already waiting for them, riled up and dancing. Formed as a Bob Marley cover band, Katchafire broke out a couple of Marley covers — always a winner at any festival, let alone a ska festival. Their rendition of Marley’s “Iron, Lion, Zion” was a wonderful way to wrap up the latest evening of my Ska Festival experience. Another day of great success for music lovers in Victoria.