The Mighty Mighty Bosstones on Expanding Their Ska Festival In Its Second Year

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Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones performs at the Radio 104.5 Birthday Show at the Susquehanna Bank Center on May 12, 2013 in Camden, New Jersey. 

Cranking & Skanking hits Rhode Island on Aug. 10.

For years, Dicky Barrett kicked around the idea of starting a music festival. It would center on ska and punk, the genres he straddles as lead singer of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and it would bounce around different cities in New England. This would allow The Bosstones to supplement the Hometown Throwdown -- their annual run of holiday shows in Boston -- with a summertime event for local fans.

Then in 2018, John Feldmann of Goldfinger and Travis Barker of Blink-182 launched Back to the Beach, a ska-centric two-day fest in Southern California. The Bosstones were among the performers. "That motivated me to get off my ass and say, 'It's about time,'" Barrett tells Billboard.

The result, Cranking & Skanking Fest, debuted last August in working-class Worcester, Massachusetts. The Bosstones topped a stellar lineup that included ska-punk originators Fishbone, Jamaican legends Toots and the Maytals and New Jersey punk mainstays Bouncing Souls. Unlike Back to the Beach, it was a one-day fest, and the modest scale made for a refreshing experience. There were good sight lines and ample bathrooms, and even the weather was nice.

"We did Worcester, and that went really well," says Barrett. "The temptation is to go, 'It worked. Why fuck with it? Do I run the risk here of it sucking somewhere else?'"

But staying put would run contrary Barrett's original vision, so this year, the action moves to another mid-size New England city, Pawtucket, Rhode Island. On Aug. 10, The Bosstones will preside over a bill featuring SoCal ska-core pioneers Voodoo Glow Skulls, San Diego ska-punk vets Buck-O-Nine, and Providence punky rockabilly kings The Amazing Crowns, who'll play just their third reunion show since breaking up in 2001. (More bands will be announced closer to the festival.) All three bands rose to national acclaim in the '90s, and all three have long histories with The Bosstones.

Buck-O-Nine's very first show was opening for The Bosstones on their inaugural U.S. tour in 1992, when grunge was king and the average American teenager had never heard of ska. After the gig, Barrett famously told Buck-O-Nine they were the worst ska band of all time. He wasn't trying to be a jerk -- not entirely, anyway. It was more about relaying some tough love he'd received from Fishbone keyboardist Chris Dowd after The Bosstones opened for the L.A. trailblazers in the mid-'80s.

"After the show, Chris did the same thing to me," Barrett says. "He said, 'You guys were horrible. Do anything but what you just did on that stage.' The funny thing about that is Chris was at Cranking & Skanking last year. As the show ended, he was like, 'You guys are so great.' And I was like, 'Well that's not what you said in Harvard Square a hundred years ago.'"

Barrett concedes that Buck-O-Nine were "probably excellent" that night in '92. "And I'm sure we were horrible," he says. "That very first Bosstones tour, we were rolling around the country just causing mayhem and destruction."

At the time, Buck-O-Nine had yet to find Jon Pebsworth, the lead singer who would soon replace the original frontman and lead the group to commercial success during the ska boom of the mid-'90s. ("My Town," their jaunty ode to San Diego, reached No. 32 on the Alternative Songs chart in 1997.) The Bosstones also factor into the story of how Pebsworth joined Buck-O-Nine. After spotting a "ska band looking for a punk singer" ad in the local paper, Pebsworth called up Buck-O-Nine sax player Craig Yarnold and asked kind of sound they were going for.

"He's all, 'Kind of like a Mighty Mighty Bosstones kind of thing,'" says Pebsworth. 

Pebsworth had never heard of The Bosstones. He was a diehard 2 Tone ska fan who grew up loving English bands like Madness and The Specials. But he promptly ran out and bought a copy of The Bosstones' 1991 single "Where'd You Go." "I took it home, listened to it, and was like, 'Fuck yeah, these guys are awesome!'" Pebsworth says. "I was like, 'Dude, when can I come and audition?'"

The Bosstones were a little more established when they met Voodoo Glow Skulls a couple years later. The two bands were destined to cross paths. Formed in Riverside, Calif., in 1988, Voodoo Glow Skulls started out playing hardcore punk and added a horn section in 1991. In doing so, the founding Casillas brothers -- singer Frank, bassist Jorge and guitarist Eddie -- hit upon a unique blend of ska, punk and metal, plus the Latin music and '50s rock n' roll their Mexican parents played throughout their childhoods. 

"We came across The Bosstones and were like, 'Oh cool, there's a band that's kind of similar to us,'" says Jorge. 

"They're definitely throwing the same things in the pot, and they're working in a very separate and very different laboratory on the other side of the country," says Barrett of Voodoo Glow Skulls. "There's a lot of similarities. I'll say that."

Before long, Jorge says, fans tried pitting his band against The Bosstones. Voodoo Glow Skulls weren't feeling the competitive vibes, and luckily, neither were The Bosstones. In fact, Barrett and the boys offered to take Voodoo Glow Skulls on the road.

"Here's this band that they're told is their competition, and instead of shying away from it, they went 'Oh, we'll just take them on tour,'" says Jorge. "I thought that was awesome."

By this point, Voodoo Glow Skulls had already dropped their excellent debut album, 1994's Who Is, This Is?, and were prepping Firme, their first of four LPs for punk bastion Epitaph Records. Firme would sell well upon its release in 1995 and garner MTV airplay with the single "Fat Randy." The Bosstones tour gave Voodoo Glow Skulls their first taste of the next-level touring that was to come.

"We'd been touring but mostly on the punk scene, on the punk level," says Jorge. "We were selling out clubs, but they weren't the same size as what The Bosstones were doing. We got a lot of good advice from those guys—how to do it the right way at that level."

The Bosstones played a similar role in nurturing The Amazing Crowns, who started playing revved-up '50s music in 1993 and grew to become nationally known by the turn of the millennium. The Crowns got a major boost in 1997 when The Bosstones tapped them—plus Bim Skala Bim and Dropkick Murphys—for the Boston on the Road Tour. The trek was in support of The Bosstones' platinum-selling Let's Face It album, the pinnacle of the '90s ska resurgence, and it meant major exposure for all three undercard bands.

"We shared a bus with Bim Skala Bim, and that's only because The Bosstones made it possible for us to get a bus at a really cheap rate," says Crowns lead singer Jason Kendall. "We started out van touring. We did the bus with The Bosstones and then went right back to van touring. It was such a shock."

Kendall remained friendly with The Bosstones in the years following the Crowns' breakup in 2001. For a while, he worked at the video game company Harmonix with Ben Carr, the Bosstones member tasked with the all-important job of skanking around like a madman on stage. On New Year's Eve 2012, Kendall and The Crowns reformed to support The Bosstones at a Hometown Throwdown concert at the House of Blues. There were plans to keep the reunion going, but within months, Crowns guitarist J.D. Burgess broke both of his arms.

Burgess was back to his old self by 2015 when the Crowns reunited a second time to honor their late buddy Erik Kish of the Chicago punkabilly band Hi-Fi and the Roadburners. But then Kendall began experiencing kidney failure. It's only because a friend donated her kidney that he's able to live a normal life and finally prepare the Crowns for another chapter.

Kendall says there could be new Amazing Crowns music in the future, but for now, the band is focusing on getting back on stage.

"We're playing really well," says Kendall. "As long as it feels good, we've always agreed we'll keep going. If [Cranking & Skanking] goes really well, which I think it will, we're going to play a couple headlining shows. One in Providence and one Boston to start. That way we can have a longer set to stretch out." 

Kendall says the band has been rehearsing some deep cuts for Cranking & Skanking, including "Bitter Life" off the 2000 album Royal, produced by Bosstones bassist Joe Gittleman. "The Bosstones and The Crowns have always been friends," says Kendall. "The Bosstones were a big deal to us, as far as helping us, giving us gigs. They always treat every band with so much respect."

The strong 2019 lineup is one reason Barrett isn't stressing too much about the pressures of changing locations and trying to match the success of last year's Cranking & Skanking. If things go well in Pawtucket, he promises not to drive himself crazy overthinking New Haven or Portland or wherever the festival travels next.

"It's only our second step, and we're not trying to overdo it or get ahead of ourselves," Barrett says. "We're trying to let it happen organically and let it happen as it wants to. We want it to be good before we want it to be anything else." 

Festivals 2019


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