Bosstones bring ska to the streets of Worcester

The Cranking & Skanking Fest includes Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
The Cranking & Skanking Fest includes Mighty Mighty Bosstones.Lisa Johnson

For years, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones have hosted the Hometown Throwdown, a multi-day, end-of-the-year run of concerts where they celebrate the holiday season with fans and hand-picked bands copacetic with their musical vision. This year, though, they decided to add an end-of-summer bash to their itinerary.

Saturday’s inaugural Cranking & Skanking Fest, which will take place at the Palladium in Worcester’s outdoor space, has the Bosstones heading up a bill crammed with ska bands from multiple generations. Toots and the Maytals, whose songs like the anthemic “Pressure Drop” have been bedrocks of modern Jamaican music since the band’s formation in the early ’60s, will perform; so will Bosstones peers like Los Angeles’ metal-tinged Fishbone and the Berklee-born Big D and the Kids Table, as well as newer acts like the Malborough quartet Color Killer, whose youngest member is grade-schooler Lincoln Zinzola. Local beer purveyors and food trucks will add to the festive atmosphere.


“This is a way to get us all back together in Boston and the New England area,” says Mighty Mighty Bosstones frontman (and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” announcer) Dicky Barrett, “and giving something to the part of the world that we love so much. What we need first of all is people to show up — and then, leave the entertaining to us. We’ll try to handle that [alongside] the Bouncing Souls, Fishbone, Toots and the Maytals . . . I can’t even believe it.”

Ska has evolved into a genre with a wide remit since its earliest days in Jamaica during the late ’50s and early ’60s, bringing together ideas from calypso and the Jamaican folk music mento as well as American R&B and jazz. Over the years, ska has shape-shifted and splintered off. Reggae, named after Toots and the Maytals’ 1968 stroll “Do the Reggay,” grew out of ska and the more languorous genre rocksteady in the late ’60s, taking a slower approach that made bass and drums more prominent. In the early ’80s, British punks embraced ska, with the sprawling London collective Madness and the socially conscious act the Specials representing the genre on American radio stations and the then-nascent MTV.


Some punkers began emphasizing the traditionally rock elements and increasing the speed to breakneck paces, creating a harder-edged version of the music that paired brassy horns with thundering drums. The Bosstones, who began in 1983, eventually coined their own term for their version: “People said, ‘What kind of music are you playing? I don’t know if I like it or not,’ ” recalls Barrett. “And then I made up a genre and said, ‘It’s called ska-core.’ ” The Bosstones eventually became one of the most prominent ska bands of the ’90s alt-rock explosion, playing the traveling version of the Lollapalooza festival, scoring hits on modern-rock radio, and appearing in the Jane Austen update “Clueless.” “It’s going to other places — more than the way it did before,” Toots Hibbert, leader of Toots and the Maytals, says of reggae and ska.

In the streaming era, niche and splinter genres are as plentiful as an errant Spotify search result, but ska still has a devoted following. “Some of our audience has grown up with us,” says Stephen Jackson of D.C. soul-ska outfit the Pietasters, noting that “we still get young kids. We’ve been grateful to get the guys that are our age and the girls that are our age that have families.”


Barrett notes that even though the genre has shifted sonically, the messages at the heart of the music — including those on his band’s latest album, the cracking “While We’re At It” — have an importance beyond style. “It’s not dumb lyrically,” he says. “There’s usually a pretty damn good message, socially or politically or otherwise in ska music.” The album — which the band released on its own Big Rig Records label in June — is one of many ska releases from recent and past years that bear out Barrett’s claim, with its spirited, storytelling-rich lyrics about resilience being framed by bright brass and roaring riffs.

That spirit will fuel Saturday’s celebration on Worcester’s Main Street. “There’s no space for bad energy in ska,” says Sirae Richardson of Doped Up Dollies, a vocal trio that sprung from Big D and the Kids Table. “People don’t just go to the show to accompany their friends — everyone that’s there wants to be there. You can tell by the way that they’re moving and the way that they’re acting.”

“Our fingers are crossed,” says Barrett. “We’re going to go out there and do what it is we think we do best — and that’s get up onstage and do our very best to make sure that everybody that’s in attendance has a great time.”

Cranking & Skanking Fest

With Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Toots & the Maytals, Bouncing Souls, Fishbone, Big D and the Kids Table, Planet Smashers, Pietasters, Doped Up Dollies, Michael Kane, Hempsteadys, Sweet Babylon, Color Killer. Outdoors at the Palladium, Worcester, Aug. 25 at 2 p.m. Tickets $38.20 and up, www.thepalladium.net


Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.