The Slackers are the ska stalwarts who keep on keepin’ on

Jessica Lipsky

THE WASHINGTON POST – The Slackers’ annual December show is something of a company holiday party for New York ska fans, drawing folks from throughout the tri-state area to dance to many of the same tunes they’ve loved for decades.

This happy tradition remains mostly unchanged, albeit this year with an addition that was a sign of the times: a mask that covered saxophonist David Hillyard’s face and mouthpiece. Their rollicking Irving Plaza performance included many longtime favourites, a harmonica-laden dub tribute to the late Lee “Scratch” Perry, extra boogaloo spice on their 1997 song Fried Chicken and a handful of classic reggae instrumentals woven into song bridges, for the true heads.

The Slackers remain at the top of their game and exist as a rarity among independent bands, especially ska and reggae groups: six working musicians who regularly play more than 150 dates a year in the United States and abroad, and who manage to sustain regular creative output and a fan base without major label support, charting singles or massive lineup changes.

“I remember there being a moment where we had found this vein of truth and goodness. And it had been somehow passed over by the rest of the world. They missed the ska beat, somehow,” singer and keyboardist Vic Ruggiero said over the phone from a tour stop in Berkeley, California, his signature Bronx accent coming through loud and clear. “It was our job to be like, ‘We’re going to pick up where those guys dropped the ball.’ “

Along with contemporaries such as Hepcat and the Pietasters, the Slackers have managed to hold on to that vein of goodness – ska and reggae – despite marked ebbs and flows in popularity. It’s arguable that no one has done so with as much verve while also transcending the genre they love. “They are the total antithesis of this horrible mozzarella stick [joke] that floats around about ska,” said author of Skaboom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History Marc Wasserman. “Their songs are about real darkness, depression, anger, sadness and loneliness, and some of the political songs as well are pretty vibrant.”

A year without touring thanks to the pandemic forced the Slackers, whose members are now in their 40s and 50s, to readjust their regular plans. But they didn’t sit on their hands; “we pivoted on a dime,” said guitarist Jay Nugent, the “newest” member, who joined in 2004.

They finally put all of their merch online, and they did weekly group quarantine sessions and live streams where Nugent discussed his production equipment, Hillyard played sax and trombonist/singer Glen Pine showed his grandma’s soup recipe. The Slackers also recorded about 20 new songs and cut their 15th album, Don’t Let the Sunlight Fool You, for Pirates Press Records. Due in March, the album has a familiar Slackers vibe, while also foregrounding the band’s non-reggae influences.

The Slackers perform at Fawcett Hall in Washington state. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST