After parking my car on Washington Avenue in Newport, I get out and start walking north toward the river. Only a few steps from my car, still 30 yards shy of the door to the Crazy Fox Saloon, I hear a deep, dark Dub Reggae groove slinking through the nighttime air like lazy smoke with an urgent message.
It’s damn near impossible to get a drink because the bar is so packed and understaffed. Undeterred, the crowd in the front room hoots and hollers. Some jockey for position at the bar, red-eyed already and teeth grinding with the frustration of dealing with a bartender who hasn’t looked your way since the Carter administration. Others duck outside for a nip from a bottle in their car. Someone kicks over a burlap sack of colored pencils under the piano bench and I seize the noisy distraction as an opportunity to stuff my pockets full of free condoms from a bin on top of the piano.
Squirming and sidling through the tiny front barroom I finally leap up the two steps that lead to the back room where Duppy A’Jamba is rocking out for a packed house. I see the familiar faces of friends and I join them on the perimeter of a jampacked dance floor.
Duppy frontman J Duckworth is a dancing, dervish hybrid of Peter Tosh and Joe Strummer. He punches the air with boisterous barks and shouts, straining a voice already ragged and raspy. And it’s still early in the band’s first set of the evening. Dressed in black, his Punk Undertaker ensemble set off by gleaming white shoes, Duckworth taunts and cajoles a dozen dancers up front.
“I’m gonna need all of you people to take a step forward!” he bellows over the band.
His chaotic, speed-freak energy-trance propels him and his guitar out on to the dance floor time and again throughout the evening, smashing the fourth wall between performer and audience. Duckworth’s impulsive animal instinct bonds the band and audience together. In this way he makes the dancers full contributors and energetic participants in the performance. The band brews a boiling Jamaican stew and all in attendance become active ingredients.
The crowd is moving like one: hands in the hair, feet flapping, elbows and knees bending and extending furiously to the band’s irrepressible Punk Ska energy. Now and then a head bobs above the fray like a fish leaping out of the ocean for a death-defying flip-flop flight, then it’s back into the bouncing mob. Guys take note: There’s a ton of young chicks in the crowd at Duppy shows.
The music simmers and percolates while band members leap about like jumping beans on a hot plate. Keyboard player Alex Duckworth and bassman Sam Schweiger share a mid-song cigarette without missing a beat. By no means tethered to his keyboard, Alex works the back of the stage, stalking to and fro, smiling and nudging the horn players then tossing his fedora into the sweaty crowd. Swallowed up by the pack of dancers, the hat soon emerges on a friend’s bobbing head. The keyboardist looks relieved that his lid wasn’t lifted, only loaned, while Schweiger’s bass rumbles the room like a steady rolling tremor.
Drummer Daniel Peterson keeps the beat up and rugged, rock steady and resilient. He and his kit smushed into the corner, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, his countenance one of hard work seriousness. Percussionist Jeff Rickels looks on in amusement while thumping the djembe. His big brown beard makes a valiant effort to disguise his smirk but ultimately fails.
Duppy A’Jamba’s horn section, sax player Brain Gilronan and trombonist Chap Sowash, might be its strongest attribute. Betraying a soul-deep and effortless calm normally seen only in much older musicians, these two ooze cool. In what is perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of the jazzman’s impeccable dress code, Gilronan and Sowash are also often the most dapper Duppies onstage. While Gilronan rolls out a slinky sax line that sounds like a rabid leopard in heat, Sowash’s heavy-lidded expression defiantly refutes the decades of apathy and misunderstanding accorded to Jazz players since the music’s inception. They trade solos and wave the shiny brass instruments over their heads, shouting and singing along with every song.
This particular Duppy gig at the Crazy Fox was a celebration of the band’s third anniversary and the release of a new EP to commemorate the event. Already veterans of both Cincy Punk Fest and Cincy Ska Fest, Duppy A’Jamba has recently hit the road on a DIY tour circuit that has taken them all around the Midwest and as far as New Orleans. They were also nominated in the Best World Music category at last year’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards.
Recently the band emerged unscathed and indeed stronger than ever after the sudden departure and eventual replacement of two original members. On the debut CD they released last year Duppy A’Jamba displayed a cool confidence and lazy-eyed romanticism. But in live performance they are off-the-hook crazy, flailing about like loco coyotes on laughing gas, giving themselves over to the infectious energy that they themselves are creating and losing themselves in the moment.
There is something for us all to learn from this. The present moment being, after all, the only one we have.
DUPPY A’JAMBA plays the Southgate House Saturday. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.