Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Founder of new ska band, Beige, has community — and dance — on his mind
“I never have been able to make people dance.”
So said Steve Westfield, who’s been known to make crowds laugh, mosh and go mental (with his first band, the long-running “funcore” gonzo punk mob Pajama Slave Dancers) or weep in their beer (with his next group, the “alt-country slowcore” outfit the Slow Band).
But now he has a new dance-minded project called Beige, an eight-piece ska band that will make its debut Sunday at 8 p.m. at Flywheel in Easthampton, opening for Bim Skala Bim.
How new is new? When I planned to profile the group last week and asked Westfield if he had a band photo, he replied, “No photos yet. No practice yet!” I asked if I could hang out at their first rehearsal and he gave the OK. “Exclusive! See the band before and as it forms!”
And so I did. Beige had taken over the living room of one of its Florence-based members, with furniture shoved aside to make room for a drum set, a sagging ironing board piled high with musical gear, a percussion zone, amplifiers balanced on chairs and the largest bag of tortilla chips I’ve ever seen.
The band’s lineup is full of Westfield’s musical friends both old and new. Saxophonist Tom Mahnken was a regular in the Slow Band. Bassist Johnny Memphis gained a new neighbor when Westfield moved to Florence last November. Stiv French, in charge of the ironing board covered in gizmos (Casio sampler, turntable, mixer, effects box), co-hosted an experimental radio show with Westfield in the late-e_SSRq80s. Percussionist Pablo Yglesias and Westfield met more recently through their kids. Joe Fitzpatrick mans the drums. Dave Trenholm and Scott DeMusis (who couldn’t make the first rehearsal) complete the horn section.
Westfield sat in a wooden chair cradling his electric guitar with lyric/chord sheets strewn around. He led the band through a new original song called “Mucho Amore, Poco Dinero” before they all veered into a skanking version of Redbone’s 1974 smash “Come and Get Your Love.”
Yglesias left his percussion station and jumped over to a microphone on the other side of the room, making like a Jamaican toasting deejay, getting the party started, unable to keep a straight face: “What’s the matter with ya head, girl? Get out on the floor! Wind your waist!”
Beige is definitely a dance band, but on Westfield’s terms. The show poster jokingly calls their sound “Mono Tone Ska” (a double joke: a play on Two Tone, the late-e_SSRq70s British second wave of ska, as well as the bland color of the band’s name), but it actually makes room for many of Westfield’s musical interests, mixing up traditional ska, comedy, punk, alt-country and the avant-garde.
Westfield had long been inspired by the legendary ’60s Jamaican ska band The Skatalites, so Beige covers a number of its tunes and keeps the rhythm solid, driven by Fitzpatrick’s steady backbeat and Westfield’s upstroke rhythm guitar.
But Beige also covers some of Westfield’s Slow Band tunes. He realized his old molasses-speed songs fit surprisingly well into the ska mold if the band just doubled the original tempo. He could sing the original words at the original speed right on top, easy as pie.
Added into the mix is the wild card of Stiv French and his disorienting and often hilarious dub-style interjections. He can sample bits of the band’s live performance and immediately loop those recorded samples back into the concert-in-progress, or play odd spoken-word records on top of the band’s live instrumentals. Old LPs like “Figure Control Record, For Women Only,” which promises on its cover, “Listen to Dr. Dante’s exciting voice and lose weight permanently — no exercise.”
The band is just as dada with its version of “Silver Dollar,” a one-chord Skatalites tune. “It’s just D minor forever,” Westfield explained to Memphis at the rehearsal as the band vamped, but as they ran through it, inspiration struck. To hear how Beige made the tune uniquely its own, you’ll have to see the show.
“From the beginning, I told everybody they would make no money whatsoever,” Westfield said about the formation of Beige. “As a matter of fact, when Johnny and I talked about it at first, we said we were going to pay people to come and see us.”
“The first 20 people get a dollar,” Memphis added.
“But then it turned into this ...” said Westfield, pointing to the bottom of the show flyer: “$1 off to anyone completely wearing beige.”
It’s a labor of love for everyone, including already-busy sound engineer Dan Richardson, who contacted Westfield on his own to ask if the new band already had a soundman. They didn’t, so Richardson’s now considered the ninth member of the group.
“He claims to have mixed live dub for 30 years,” Westfield said. “He has permission to flip us upside down and backwards every other song.”
Beige is definitely a fun outlet for Westfield, but he made a serious point about why he felt the need to start a new group.
“My mantra with the Pajama Slave Dancers was ‘Please start your own band. You can do it, look at us, we’re idiots but we’re doing this.’ At this point, there’s plenty of [bands], plenty of venues, but I still feel it’s everyone’s duty to contribute to society in some artistic way. We all say, ‘I’m a plumber, I’m a teacher,’ but what is your art? It should be, ‘I’m a lawyer, AND I paint.’
“You owe it to your community to liven it up a little bit, give something to them. That’s why I’m doing it.”