It was only later, after my head had finally been brought back down to earth by the combined forces of professional jealousy and nitpicking music-critic pettiness, that I began to latch on to the idea that the Ska Vengers were not in fact the best band in the world. This took up the better part of a working week, a week I spent in the throes of ill-suppressed excitement at having realised that what I’d attended hadn’t just been a great evening out, it had actually been proof of something, as if, winding up on a new planet and believing it to be barren, I had instead, to my breathless surprise, stumbled upon intelligent life.
In a way, I had set myself up for this. The week the Ska Vengers played their set, Metallica had been scheduled to do a stadium show, the collective anticipation of which had grown to almost second-coming-like proportions within the black T-shirt-wearing, gig-going minority who hang around at places with names like “Legends of Rock”. This seemed to sum it up quite nicely: tens of thousands of Metallica fans, perhaps the last place where that sort of grunting fuckwittery could be peddled for profit in this day and age without inviting revolt. Either that, or the urban mishap that is the Bangalore I work in, with a population which frequently looks and acts like the ten million arms and legs of a single vast idiot creature. Two years of manning the helm between this Scylla and Charybdis of cultural choice, and I had been left with a profound lack of faith in the chances of anything good ever happening here.
The venue – the Sutra Lounge, living up to every connotation of upmarket Indian obnoxiousness contained in its name – didn’t inspire hope; the stage set up did. A drum set without toms is, at the very least, a sign of bravery. Sharply turned out musicians are inevitably one of three things: piano-playing hotel-lounge invertebrates, shallow shtick merchants, or, if you’re lucky as I was, people who’ve got pop down and have worked out that being stars has everything to do with looking like stars. Instruments which go together – Nord keyboards and a brass section, not a Kurzweil and an Ibanez – is a sign that people care. A trumpet player is, without exception, a good thing. A rouged-up, dolled-up woman in hot pants is best.
The Ska Vengers do a whole lot of things ridiculously well. Their own songs are catchy enough to be familiar, their choice of covers is blameless. They have a rhythm section from hell, possibly the crispest, tightest thing I’ve heard, a full horn section, a keyboardist who doubles up on “ooh ooh” vocals and dicks around with bits of percussion in his spare time, and spectacular frontmanship by a rapping freak-of-nature who lays down the groundwork for the eye-popping thing in a hat who, when she’s not acting the glamour puss for the goggling crowd, also knows how to actually sing.
Watching them on YouTube after the fact was an oddly unimpressive experience. The naive politicking on stage (“A message to you, Modi”, ho hum), which I was willing to buy into in the excitement, looked made up and silly on film. The songs sounded tinny, the singing merely by-the-numbers bluesiness. This wasn’t the case at the gig – they were phenomenal, super-muscular, you couldn’t fault the fuckers. They were so extraordinarily exciting that, tottering out into the fresh air away from the platinum tiered rich after the show, I felt like I had had a massive swindle pulled on me. This was a band sent to put my sort out of business, the one group that no pallid, thinning-haired post-punk critic could say a bad word about: like they’d read every record review from 1977 to 1983 and addressed all concerns therein, so that, quite simply, there would be nothing left to say once they were done.
Put an unstoppable drum-and-bass section, two horn players, enough voltage to last two hours without a break, a setlist of addictive sounding songs, a perfect command of shifts and dynamics and a pair of borderline illegal legs in one place like that, and you’ve hit a winner.
The Ska Vengers will – in aspirant artists’ parlance – “make it”, quite simply because, on top of being very, very good, they show no weakness. They look terrific and they sound terrific. Their act is inspired in part, but – and this is the rare thing – it is also thoroughly thought-out. Every visual, every bump and crackle has been worked on. The gig I watched was the product of deliberate, single-minded artistic focus, a collective vision that’s entirely coherent, complete and in perfect balance within itself. And because, unlike most groups, they know exactly what they’re doing, unlike most groups they’ll end up big.