$15 and five cans of food. On Saturday between noon and 8 p.m., nearly 30 bands will perform at four stages in the Old City, in and around Barleyâ’s Taproom. Jackson Avenue east of Central Avenue will be blocked off for one of the stages. Barleyâ’s will be the only official Ska Weekend venue offering beer. Says event producer Ben Altom: â“Itâ’s an all-ages show. I am going to keep it like that, if I can. If you want a beer you are welcome to drink till you canâ’t skank anymore inside Barleyâ’s.â”
by Jack Rentfro
Say you've got this kid from Powell at the beginning of the new millennium who digs trumpet and marching band. Maybe it's a legacy kind of thing. After all, his dad, George Altom, played in the University of Tennessee's Pride of the Southland band way, way back in the '70s.
Like all teenagersâ"or most of us, reallyâ"he's looking for some kind of community with like-minded souls. Nobody enjoys being marginalized, and for a horn player, there's not a lot of action out there. There's that whole â“band geekâ” stereotype, which is as real as any lie if you have to live with it.
They call this kidâ"who was big enough for the football team but preferred musicâ"â“Bigâ” Ben Altom. A chance exposure to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake, and Reel Big Fish infected the freshman with a love of ska music. He became obsessed with the horn-laden, beat-heavy music that could be purely Dionysian one second and a call to arms in the next verse.
â“This was cool music to latch onto,â” Altom remembers. â“As a horn player, there's not a lot out there after jazz and classical. And, man, do I love the beat. You can't help but smile and dance when you hear it. But my obsession for ska came from discovering the depth of the genre. I even wrote a â‘thesis,' if you will, at UT on ska music and its relation to Knoxville.â”
This connection between that nerdy, do-gooder from Powell (he's been helping Second Harvest food bank since he was in student government) and an obscure musical form that originated in Jamaica 40 years ago would catalyze in two ways. One: Ben Altom would become a precocious, international entertainment impresario by starting his own ska festival. Two: Knoxvilleâ"deep in the heart of banjo and fiddle countryâ"would become a major hub for a genre of music that, even if it inspires rabid fervor in its devotees, has been marginalized by the general public.
In fact, Altom's annual Ska Weekend has become not only a local tradition benefiting Second Harvest food bank, but also an internationally renowned event featuring some of the most popular bands in the ska world.
SKA IN KNOXVILLE?
â“Ben has made an event that should not work in this market. Ska in Knoxville? C'mon, mon!â” says Benny Smith, director of programming at UT's student radio station WUTK, one of several sponsors for the event.
What is ska? Simply put, â“it is dance music with the accent on the second and fourth beat,â” Altom says. There's a lot more to it, but, â“the rest is just a big melting pot like everything else in this world.â” Altom considers Prince Buster to be the genre's progenitor. â“The Jamaicans were looking for a new kind of dance music. They took American R&B and accented the offbeat. Since then, however, it has been shaped by jazz and British and American rock.â” Americans may be most familiar with the rocked-up version of ska that came out of Britain in the early ' 80s, typified by Madness' take on Prince Buster's signature song, â“One Step Beyond.â”
For Altom, it all started in high school. â“In 2001, I was a senior at Powell High School. My Senior Project was to start a band; market it; record an album; sell the album and perform some shows. We covered songs by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Reel Big Fish songs, and also recorded four original tracks,â” Altom says.
That band performed only three shows, but Altom had caught the performing bug and got hooked on ska, too.
â“There was so much more to it than I thought,â” Altom says, revealing that he had hardly ever considered pop music beyond the three-chord paradigm. â“Ska is where reggae comes from. There's that whole cultural background: It's about more than the music. It is about racial unity. It's about the community that supports it as much as it is about the music.â”
Altom and pal Zac Johnson, who had just learned guitar, decided to bring ska to Knoxville. Rehearsing in the basement of the Johnson home, the two youngsters and some more Powell gradsâ"Travis Gordon, Brett Smith, Ryan Lambert, Chase Campbell and Doug Griffeyâ"formed Perfect Orange.
Local soul-and-funk band Gran Torino had shown these young fans that horns still had a place in contemporary music. The night after Gran Torino's last show at Blue Cat's, Perfect Orange debuted as Knoxville's first ska band. Which was pretty impressive considering that a year earlier, some of the members didn't know what ska was. After Perfect Orange's opening, Altom decided the band ought to share a bill with other ska bands. Over 100 came to see Perfect Orange and Georgia's Taj Motel Trio, when they played at Axis Skate Park on Kingston Pike. The enthusiasm of the crowd spurred Altom to take it to another level.
â“I started to book more regional acts for small shows. We even found a venue in Powell, a coffeehouse called Brickyard Blues, with some great owners that wanted to help our cause,â” he says. â“Owners Michael and Kelly Devonport gave us the start we needed to build Ska Weekend. We were bringing in bands every other week to their place next door to Powell High School to give the local youth an opportunity to see some music in a smoke- and alcohol-free environment. These kids were able to stay out of trouble, have a great time, and enjoy their music and friends. After a few months of small shows, we decided to try a weekend-long festival that summer.â”
That summer weekend in 2003, seven bands performed on two nights at the family restaurant. Networking with all the traveling bands and the increasing fan base continued to build Ska Weekend over the years. Perfect Orange's growing reputation and toursâ"they headlined at notorious Manhattan punk dive CBGB's the winter of that yearâ"became a vehicle to promote Knoxville's ambitious little ska scene to cult level.
â“The highlight of the New York tour was the kids asking us about this ska festival in Knoxville. We had bands asking us if they could come play. We had kids wanting to make the trip down to Knoxville. It was unbelievable. At that point I knew we were really into something special. I felt we really needed to have a non-profit focus if we were going to sell this totally different style of music to a city based on bluegrass and Appalachian folk.â”
Ticket purchasers were encouraged to bring canned food for Second Harvest, a non-profit organization that is a clearinghouse for agencies that provide meals to the needy and homeless, cementing Ska Weekend's association with feeding the hungry. More touring by Perfect Orange exponentially increased Ska Weekend's national profile. Ever encouraged, Altom expanded the 2004 festival to the Old City, declaring it â“the largest ska festival in the country. We had gone from having the smaller bands who were used to playing to 75-100 people a night to having nationally recognized names like Mustard Plug, MU330 and the Planet Smashers.â”
In the spring of 2005, Ska Weekend drew 1,000 people and collected 3,500 pounds of food for Second Harvest.
Perfect Orange hit the road again that summer spreading the word, but changes were in the air. Even with Ska Weekend's reputation continuing to grow, Altom felt like he could no longer continue with Perfect Orange. Life was pulling the young man in other directions. Things he couldn't control, like gas prices and a sudden glut of ska punk shows around the country, created too much drag. The band's last show was in October 2005.
Only a month later, Altom found a partner to give new life to the festivalâ"another Powell High alumnus, Kristen Cummings.
â“I knew we had to get some reggae involved to make the show more appealing in Knoxville,â” Altom says. Cummings was a hardcore reggae buff with the kind of drive Altom needed in an assistant. â“Her help made 2006 the most diverse show we have had to date. We had some of the nation's biggest bands in Catch 22, the Pietasters, King Django, Westbound Train, Natti Lovejoys, and many more. It gained even more attention online within the ska scene. We were officially the largest show for the genre in the country, possibly the world,â” Altom declares.
About 1,400 came to Ska Weekend 2006. That spring, Ska Weekend reached a total food donation to Second Harvest of five tons: â“Enough for 27,000 meals in East Tennessee.â”
BIGGER AND BETTER
From its modest beginnings among a bunch of teenagers, Ska Weekend has grown each year since 2003, moving from a tiny gathering at a mom and pop restaurant in Powell to Market Square to the Old City.
â“Ska Weekend is almost a convention of ska fans; it's almost about that as much as it is about the music itself,â” says Altom.
Thirty bands will play four stages in the Old City all Saturday afternoon for Ska Weekend '07, the fifth consecutive year for the ever-expanding event. This year, a hefty reggae component led by local reggae avatars the Natti Lovejoys and up-and-comers Fat Penguin is going to leaven the lineup. Besides reggae and dub (a trippy variant of reggae relying heavily on electronic effects), almost every permutation of ska from classic to punk will be represented in the nationwide spread of bands coming to Knoxville.
These include significant touring and recording artists the Pietasters, the Slackers and Mustard Plug. Most significant for fans of the Two Tone movement from Great Britain where ska first received its punk imprint, a band called Steadfast United will make an appearance or two throughout the weekend. Although Steadfast United now hails from that part of the skasmos known as Philadelphia, the senior member is Lynval Golding, a nearly mythic figure in the world of ska. As an original vocalist and rhythm guitarist with The Specials, he helped create the punk-ska hybrid a quarter century ago in Coventry with hits like â“Gangsters.â” Golding also hired onto the U.S. touring edition of fellow Brit-ska legends, the English Beat.
Yet another standout on the roster for Saturday is King Django. â“King Django was one of the first ska musicians to perform in America,â” according to Altom. â“His label, Stubborn Records, was one of the first labels to promote ska music in the U.S.â”
Also notable, especially to survivors of Cumberland Avenue during the punk revolution of the early ' 80s, will be the appearance of Nashville's AKA Rudie. AKA Rudie, still led by the dapper, kinetic keyboardist-trombonist Rob Hoskins, was known as Freedom of Expression in those days. Rudie's aesthetic values owe as much to original, Jamaican, R&B-flavored â“first waveâ” ska as they do to the punked-up, British â“second wave.â” The band most likely to win the â“Traveled the Farthestâ” prize will be Dr. Ring Ding, a German ska outfit.
Altom insists his ska festival is the biggest in the world. He has a good arguing positionâ"the other major U.S. ska event, the International Ska Circus in Las Vegas in a couple of weeks, has 12 bands to his 30. (Give or take regional acts, the lineups at festivals in this hemisphere and Europe are populated by varying combinations of only a few dozen bands.)
TALES OF WELLS FARGO
The event was almost a victim of its success. Altom, now 24 and facing various career and personal decisions, wondered this summer if Ska Weekend had outgrown its feasible budget.
â“Ska Weekend 2007 was on the verge of being canceled the last week of June,â” Altom says. â“I didn't have the money to cover that kind of budget, and sponsors for 2007 were looking thin. The show was too big. I couldn't cover it if it flopped. In the grand scheme of things, our budget of $30,000 is nothing. But this is the biggest do-it-yourself show in the country.â”
Unexpectedly, his employer, Wells Fargo, stepped up with a $10,000 grant. Wells Fargo's community services branch studied Ska Weekend's record over the past four years and selected it as the recipient of the award. Altom, who left Knoxville a year ago to work for the Nashville office of the diversified financial services organization, was surprised in his office with the check, virtually all of which is going directly to Second Harvest's Knoxville division.
As it stands, half the event's profit â“goes straight to hungry mouths,â” Altom says. About a third of the revenue becomes seed money for next year's event, and a little bit is earmarked to help Altom cover his personal expenses. He expects to end up eating most of that, which he can, â“now that I have a big-boy job.â”
With Altom in Nashville the past yearâ"and just this month promoted by Wells Fargo to a managership in Tuscaloosa, Ala.â"he finds that even with Kristen Cummings' help, he relies more and more on a support system. This includes Susan Martino, events coordinator at Second Harvest; â“best friendâ” Jon Larmoyeux and his wife, Robin, who run merchandising; an â“art guruâ” from Japan named Yukiko Adachi who designed the poster and other art for the festival; and Thomas Siloway to keep the web site up. In all, a staff of 50 stands by to help out this weekend.
THERE IS LIFE AFTER MARCHING BAND
A veteran event producer himself, Benny Smith has been a mentor to Altom over the years. â“Ben is a good kid, for sure. An awfully large kid, but a good one,â” Smith says. â“The best part about Ben is that he knows he is still learning this crazy biz. He is very willing to listen to what I tell him. He asks a lot of questions, so I try to have answers for him, largely based on my 15-plus years of doing that stuff.â”
And if they didn't have music in common, Altom, like Smith, is a rabid fan of all things Tennessee, which made his move to Alabama all the more piquant. From â“Perfect Orangeâ” on, it's easy to see Altom has some fierce feelings about where he comes from. As in high school, he is more passionate about band than football.
â“I marched at Powell, but more importantly I marched in the best marching band in the United States while in college. I have played in almost 50 cities across the U.S., done all of these fests, and had some great musical experiences. But there is nothing in this world that can compare to the lessons and experiences of my four seasons marching in the University of Tennessee's Pride of the Southland band.â”
In September, Altom plans to marry Jennifer Johnson. It just figures that he would even find the girl he wants to spend his life with while both were members of UT's marching band.
Altom and ska have come a long way since band practice. All those football games at Powell and parades down Emory Road. Those first tentative practices with the guys who would be in possibly the first ska band of native East Tennesseans, Perfect Orange.
â“Band geeks aren't geeks. I mean, we are; but we're not. Just like ska is the geek of the music world. But, it's not.â”
There will be a preshow at 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24 at the World Grotto at 16 Market Square in downtown Knoxville featuring local reggae champions the Natti Lovejoys and Dubconscious, plus Heat Vision and the Throng of Rock & Roll Dinosaurs. Endive, a DJ, and indie rockers Warm in the Wake will be at Preservation Pub. Both events are slated for 9 p.m. with wristbands to be purchased at World Grotto ($8 for 21 and older and $10 for 18-to-21 year olds). Patrons can get a discount of $1 by bringing two cans of food. All food and a portion of the funds collected will go to Second Harvest.
Sets beginning 12:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Sets beginning Noon to 7:15 p.m.
Sets beginning 12:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m.
Sets beginning 12:45 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.
An after-party for 21-and-older featuring Steadfast Unitedâ"a band that includes guitarist-vocalist Lynval Golding, a founding member of British ska legends, the Specialsâ"will close out the festival Saturday night at Barleyâ’s Taproom.
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