“Santa Claus was a bitch!” announced Mephiskapheles front man Andre A. Warrell, AKA the Nubian Nightmare, as the band’s fusion of third wave ska, hardcore, and metal swept across an eager Cafe Nine audience on Saturday night.
What might have been saber-tooth tiger claws curved out from Warrell’s earlobes as he exhorted the crowd. His ring-bedazzled finger pointed accusingly toward the tin roof throughout the night, Warrell weaved his arms like a fighter. Again and again, he led a packed front room forward with call and response choruses of “Oi!”
Twenty-three years after selling their collective soul to the devil for fame — the devil haggled, so Mephiskapheles would only earn world renown throughout the ska subculture — the members of the band still have what it takes to bring down the house. They show no sign of slowing down. Apparently, retirement was not part of the devil’s deal.
Mephiskapheles, the third wave skacore pioneers who first caught on in the 1990s, pleased their crowd, playing hits from their own extensive catalog and fresh tracks as well. Their playfully satanic lyrics (see “Satan Stole My Weed”) still resonated with new fans and the faithful — at times, the show felt like a third-wave ska scene reunion.
Fresh off their first Central American tour, the band played an energetic show full of technical finesse and flourishes. Police lights from New Haven’s finest added to the night’s ambiance through the window as the band switched genres with ease, going from zero to one-hundred ois per minute in seconds flat.
Michael Bitz’s jazz-laced upright bass syncing up well with the “Horns of Hell”: trombonist Greg Robinson and tenor saxophonist Fernando Leon, a former stand-in, who by the sounds of things signed a sub-lease onto the group’s satanic pact.
The horn section in turn contrasted nicely with Dave Hahn’s frenzied guitar. Meanwhile, drummer Wayne Dunton held Mephiskapheles’s tapestry of genres together with his high intensity fills (he has played professionally with acts ranging from Broadway musicals Cats and The Lion King to Dave Matthews).
Before Mephiskapheles took the stage, The Screw Ups kicked off Saturday night at Cafe Nine with a set that entertained and impressed. The group’s two-tone tunes got the crowd dancing, nodding along, and skanking right off the bat. The band members, based out of Newtown and Boston, have played regionally as the Screw Ups for 10 years now—some of them playing together since high school — and their familiarity really showed on stage. They looked comfortable up there, putting on a show, and they were always on the same page.
The Screw Ups are Julian Wahlberg on guitar and vocals, Nick Ambrogio on bass and vocals, and Mike Sanchez on drums. Cody Zanard, the saxophone player, sat this one out because a few of his teeth got pulled recently — but that didn’t stop him from taking to the stage to harmonize with Wahlberg as the ska moved him to do so. Without the saxophone, the Screw Ups sounded more like Sublime than the Skatalites. While the band’s harder-faster, lo-fi live sound suited the mood of the room well, their brassy studio recordings are also well worth a listen.
Southern Connecticut’s own Royal Swindlers somehow packed onto Cafe Nine’s limited stage space for a set of rollicking ska classics. In an evening heavy on ska fusion, the Royal Swindlers brought the ska back to a more familiar place. Pulling no punches in their lineup, the band’s numerous musicians each carried their weight in brass, cymbal bells, ivory, and strings alike.
Singer Julianne Cote and Carmellia Rossomando-Heisse, bass and vocals, brought a much needed counterweight to the otherwise testosterone-heavy lineup. Cote’s voice in particular helped drive the Royal Swingers sound home, whether vaulting with an R&B swagger or crouching down and connecting with her crowd for the grittier stuff.
The night’s festivities were organized by local promoter Fernando Pinto, who ran the Tune Inn for 10 years before closing in 2002. This reporter would also like to personally thank the sound team for taking it easy on the decibel levels at this show. We all still had a great, wild time. Nobody went home with their head ringing from the noise, although a few fans fell pretty flat before being hoisted by their fellow ska enthusiasts.
“None of you are real Satanists!” Warrell exclaimed as Mephiskapheles finished its final, furious number. Deep red stage lights seared his face, held in a grimace, as the front man denounced the crowd: “You’re all just failed Christians. Fuck you.”
Cafe Nine erupted into riotous applause.
“And Merry Christmas,” added Hahn, who up to that point, had not said a word.