Soul Ska at Sweetwater Music Hall, by William Wayland
Soul Ska (photo: William Wayland)

If you’re reading this and you don’t know Soul Ska, that’s partly by design. The band was never interested in blanketing the Bay Area or selling a lot of records. They’re selective about where they play and they put in the effort to build up an audience, returning again and again to create a loyal following before staking out new territory.  The strategy must be working because Soul Ska shows consistently sell out.

That’s what it was like on Friday, November 15, when the band celebrated their five-year anniversary at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley. There was a line around the corner to get in and inside, a buzz of anticipation.

Backstage, there was an excitement among the band members, too. This feels like a band that enjoys playing together. Some of the Soul Ska musicians describe the band as being like a family, and that’s the way it felt on Friday. It was like a reunion show at times as band members who had moved on for one reason or another returned to the stage.

Before the band’s fifth anniversary bash at Sweetwater Music Hall; band leader, keyboardist and mean harmonica player, Jonathan Korty and I talked about the genesis of the band. Soul Ska came together at a time when Jonathan, a Marin native and fixture of the music scene there, was looking to stay close to home.  With a young family; touring with his previous band, Vinyl (which still gigs in the Bay Area) had lost a lot of its appeal.

He wanted to infuse a new band with the lessons he had learned from playing and touring, but mainly he wanted to form a group that would put people out on the dance floor. Ska was music Jonathan listened to growing up in Mill Valley. He loved the genre’s infectious beat, but also its message of unity.

With his reputation in the music business, Jonathan was able to hand pick some of the best musicians in the Bay Area to join Soul Ska.  Drawing a repertoire of original songs plus familiar covers from bands like the Specials, Madness, and the Selector, they drew an audience from the start.

With two different drummers, keyboard, horn section, a guitar or two, a couple of basses, and five singers sharing lead on Friday, the stage was almost as crowded as the audience.

Musicians sitting in included Bryan Kehoe (currently with Kehoe International) on guitar, Loring Jones (currently with Stymie & the Pimp Jones Luv Orchestra) on drums, Ryan Scott, trumpet player with Monophonics; Alex Baky, tenor saxophone also with Monophonics, and Goopy Rossi, bass player with the Grease Traps. Who did I miss?

Somewhere in Soul Ska lore, a series of unfortunate events led to the band connecting with Angelo Moore, who was somehow convinced to join them onstage at Great American Music Hall to play the Fishbone classic, “Ma and Pa.”  That was years ago, and though he now fronts The Brand New Step, he’s been playing big shows with Soul Ska ever since and flew in with his saxophone and theremin for the occasion.

Dr. Madd Vibe celebrated another occasion on the Sweetwater stage Friday. It was his birthday recently, and he was surprised with a cake that appeared from backstage.

By the time the band took their final bow the audience was a hot, sweaty, happy mess. The band had played for three hours without a break, and I lost track of the number of musicians that cycled through. Soul Ska made the evening feel like a musical event instead of a show.