The Phantom Tollbooth

The Morphing of Horns -- A Concert Review
The Outsiders, The W's, The Israelites
Heart 'n Soul Café, Mt. Prospect, Illinois
Saturday, August 8, 1998
By Linda T. Stonehocker
In its third year, the Christian ska scene has hit its stride. Horn sections aren't a novelty anymore; they are a necessity if you want to draw a crowd under 20 years old. It's only natural that as the scene's key bands--The Supertones, Five Iron Frenzy, The Insyderz--become household names that the genre is broadening as well. And that is why a coffeehouse/youth center in suburbia found couples brushing up on their swing dance steps before the live music began on a Saturday night in early August. The trend setting women wore tight-waisted dresses with flaring knee-length skirts and high heels. They looked good with the narrow ties and dress shirts their ska men have worn for a couple of years.
Ten days after releasing their first CD, which set a first week sales record for their distributor on its way to number 4 on the Christian music charts, and becoming a Billboard heatseeker, The W's arrived in the Chicago area to give the curious and dolled-up swingers alike a sample of what the buzz is all about.
But first, the opening act. Unsigned, Greenville College originated, The Outsiders were a tough act to follow. An upright bass introduced the group with fast, crisp, jazz before shifting easily into blue-eyed funkadelic soul. In its year and a half of existence, the band estimates it has played almost 200 shows, which explains the tight interplay of the seven members. They are practiced professionals who understand that the secret to band success and longevity is engaging your audience. Their rolling rhythms and extended guitar, saxophone, trumpet, keyboard, and flute solos undergird the three vocalists's fun with the melody, during long numbers the listeners hoped would never end. Their final offering, "Lead in My Pocket," contemporized their seventies' sensibilities by adding hip hop and New Orleans-style horns. This made categorization of their hybridized sound such a long string of descriptors most people will simply call them "original."
The most eagerly anticipated band of the evening was The W's. The W's introduced themselves to Illinois at Cornerstone Festival 200 miles from this venue only one month earlier, but word spread quickly. The swingers started in with the opening beats while the rest of the audience looked on, eager to learn the moves. The Christian market is ready to add some variation to their horn listening, and primed to move their feet in more complex patterns than skanking or a mosh pit can offer. This is couples dancing, and half of each couple is a girl, another interesting variation for the Christian rock music scene, which is predominantly male.
The sound mix favored the drums over the saxophone and trumpet, highlighting The W's punk influence, but only a few diehards skanked or slammed. The poor suckers who gave in to their families's wishes and took dancing lessons, and practiced with their aunts at all those awful family weddings found themselves in high demand. The W's can be physical, comic performers, but tonight, there was no need for the high jinx; the crowd was theirs from the opening notes. They ran through most of their soon-to-be-released CD, and the crowd joined in on the first single from their new album, "You Are the Devil." The room had a sock-hop vibe to it, with a giddy excitement among the crowd that would be very out of place at any of the alternative rock shows of the past decade, but hung in the air long after they finished.
Nobody told the crowd you couldn't dance to second wave ska, so when the headliners of the show, The Israelites, finally got their turn, the die-hard couples kept at it. The steady dub beat eventually convinced everyone to bob along, or get something to drink, or cool off outside, except for those still teaching swing steps to eager students. The Israelites created a nice rolling beat, but an out-of-tune saxophone curdled the sound for this reviewer, and the crowd began to thin as they realized how much the Flying Lindy takes out of you. As a historically authentic band, the pace never reached the speeds of the more familiar third wave ska-core, but the route to reggae from ska was clearly illustrated, with well defined excursions into South American dance rhythms as well. This was the first group all night singing clearly enough to make their lyrics understandable, which suited their mission to emphasize the Christian origins of ska very well. Lost in the "pockets" of their rhythms, the band outlasted the audience as they headed home in search of more dancing lessons and retro clothes.