I had a bad feeling about this one. To start with, I’ve heard a lot of ska lately, and the majority of it’s been bad—I’d liked some of The Slackers’ stuff in the past, but…well, you can never tell. The other part of my initial “bad feeling” worried me more: I think live albums are pretty pointless. Always have, since way back in high school when my friends would all by live albums by their favorite metal bands—it never made any sense to me. It’s all just the same damn songs you can hear on the real album, right? The only difference between most live recordings and studio-recorded CDs is that the sound usually sucks more on the live version, so why not just listen to the original?
Live at Ernesto’s! has my head all turned-round, though, I’ll admit it. When I first put it on, I was taken aback by how rough the recording sounded; it’s far from polished, sounding at times like they just threw a few mics up on the stage, not worrying about how it sounded. On top of that, the people yelling and hooting and laughing came close to drowning out the music at a few points, and that’s normally really annoying. By about midway through the album, though, the crowd noise and imperfect sound that started out as irritating actually became sort of endearing, making me feel like I was actually hanging out in a smoky Mexican restaurant in Holland (no, I don’t get that, either, but that’s what Ernesto’s is, apparently). The band’s live energy is infectious, and they don’t sound like they give a damn that the performance is being captured for all posterity; they do their thing and have fun, keeping it all remarkably together at the same time. The clinking glasses, laughter, and catcalls (some in Dutch) make it an almost intimate experience. What Live makes me think of, more than anything, is an old CD I have of Irish drinking songs, recorded live in a pub—it’s the same atmosphere, people playing music and having fun while the tape just happens to be rolling.
Of course, they wouldn’t be able to pull it off if the music sucked, and it thankfully doesn’t. The Slackers’ music pushes its way through the noise of the restaurant and the crowd and manages to be some pretty damn fine soul-ska, with only a few missteps along the way (i.e., the solos in the Skatalites-ish jam “Work Song”; but hey, that’s the chance you take live, I guess). They do best on the slower songs, like “Feed My Girl,” “Sarah,” and the anti-love song “I Still Love You,” but some of the faster songs are great, too, particularly the opener, “Sooner Or Later.” There’s no punk-ska here, only trad-style ska and reggae, along the lines of The Adjusters or fellow New York scenesters The Scofflaws, with a few odd bits (like trumpeter Jeremy Mushlin’s toasting turn on the lone dub track, “Mush One”) thrown in for fun. And unlike most live albums I’ve heard, Live at Ernesto’s! turns out to be just that—not redundant, not boring, but just plain fun.