Ska music plays an important — if short-lived — role in many lives. I bet you’re shocked to learn, given my background growing up in a safe, white neighborhood, that I, too, went through my own ska phase.
That phase lasted from about eighth grade through my freshman year of high school, just like everyone else who likes the genre. I think it has something to do with not being able to drive. When I wasn’t giggling at goofy uptempo songs about murderers, I was learning how to skank (Seriously, dude? Seven minutes?) and sewing Slapstick patches into my ratty green hoodie. I was cool.
I’m glad I had those Slapstick patches and album, because few artists outside of The Beatles have stayed in my life for such a long time. Yes, I compared Slapstick to The Beatles. Don’t get me wrong, Slapstick’s angsty songs about girls and metalheads in parking lots aren’t great, but they’re still fun to hear every now and then.
However, there’s more to that one band than some nice horn-inflected punk. They spawned enough music to rival the Elephant 6 collective. To varying degrees, I enjoy all of the “Slapstick Family Tree” bands, like Tuesday, The Honor System, and Alkaline Trio, but it’s singer/songwriter Brendan Kelly whose music has meant the most to me as I’ve grown older.
The teenaged Kelly’s songs in Slapstick all belied a viewpoint somewhat similar to my own: That of eye-rolling world-weariness, wondering about why we do the things we do.
As he aged, he formed bands like The Broadways and The Lawrence Arms, groups that stuck with me as I slid past my ska/punk days and grew marginally more eclectic. Kelly’s worldview hardened into a haze of alcohol and political anger, two things that get any teenager’s blood going, and it worked like a charm for me.
Kelly’s raspy vocals and ramshackle lyrics are the definition of Midwestern punk to me. His eye for local Chicago flavor helps me when I’m feeling homesick, even if those lyrics depict alcoholics shouting at people. His work isn’t all piss and vinegar, though. Kelly’s stage presence is one of gregarious fun, with jokes cracked left and right. He knows how to put on a show and it’s nice to see a musician who loves the way he makes his living.
As is my wont, I spent some time today perusing the A.V. Club’s Undercover list and wondered if Kelly had contributed any covers for the series. While disappointed to see he hadn’t, I started a-Googlin’ and found some of Kelly’s newest work. I was thrilled to see he’d branched out further with bands like The Falcon and his latest enterprise, Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds.
I already knew about Kelly’s interest in roots rock based on some Lawrence Arms hidden tracks, but these days he’s really taken to the traveling troubadour stuff. It suits him quite well. Much of the subject matter is the same, but he’s incorporated a pop sensibility he’s never had much time for in the past. See?
In the 10 years since I first heard him, my appreciation Kelly’s music has not faded. Here’s to a decade of fandom, and to many more.