It's a mix that works

Virginia-based ska/soul group goes eclectic route with punk, reggae

December 07, 2006|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun Reporter

It's hard for the average rock band to earn a living if it doesn't break big. All the album and ticket sales have to be split four or five ways.

With that in mind, consider how tough it is for eight-piece ska/soul group the Pietasters to make enough money just to cover their costs. There are 10 people on the road if you count the tour manager and merchandise guy.

"Anything divided by 10 is nothing," vocalist Stephen Jackson said. "I think one of the reasons we have survived as long as we have is that there are 10 of us and there is strength in numbers."

Saturday, the Virginia-based Pietasters join two Baltimore bands -- reggae outfit the Rootworkers and indie surf group Thee Lexington Arrows -- for a show at the Ottobar.

The Pietasters played their first show in 1989 and started touring around the time of their first album release in 1992, Jackson said. Since then, they've ridden the '90s ska wave to some mainstream success. They were part of the Epitaph family late in the decade, and got some MTV time with the music video for "Yesterday's Over."

The band was never just a straightforward upbeat ska group. Its music also has punk, soul and reggae qualities. The original Jamaican forefathers of ska music listened to soul and mixed it with their rhythms. Jackson and the other band members share some of the same influences.

"To this day we have a very eclectic mix of music that we all enjoyed listening to," Jackson said. "When we started playing in a band, it only made sense to us to play everything we like."

The Pietasters' familiarity with soul came in handy when James Brown needed a backup band for his part of HFS' annual holiday concert in 2002. The Pietasters recorded a karaoke-style instrumental demo of Brown songs and sent it to the Godfather of Soul. He liked the Pietasters' sound and brought the band on board for a short set.

"He was really gracious," Jackson said. "Obviously he could have made us look foolish. ... I think we were all petrified, but it worked out all right and there were no glaring errors. He was just really great."

A couple of weeks after the show, Brown's management offered Pietasters engineer Todd Harris a job on the road with them, and he agreed. Though good for Harris, it meant he would be around much less to record the Pietasters.

Now, about four years later, the band is finally negotiating with labels to release a studio album. Of the roughly 20 tracks the group recorded, 14 or 15 will make the still unnamed album, Jackson estimates. Some have reggae grooves and others are old-fashioned ska numbers, he said.

"I think it's the best one yet" Jackson said. "So we continue this labor of love."

Saturday's show should be one big throwdown, Jackson said.

"We definitely do our part to facilitate the partying," Jackson said. "That's our badge of honor. We want everybody to wake up with a hangover after our show."

The Pietasters play the Ottobar Saturday. Doors open at 9 p.m. and the all-ages show starts at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $12. The venue is at 2549 N. Howard St. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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