The Mighty Mighty BossToneS Come Back To Mass. To Launch Cranking & Skanking Fest In Worcester

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. (Courtesy Lisa Johnson)
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. (Courtesy Lisa Johnson)

The Mighty Mighty BossToneS: not just for Christmas anymore!

Dicky Barrett, the BossToneS lead singer, laughs when this potential joke tagline is mentioned, but admits there might be some truth in that playful pitch.

The BossToneS — the plaid-clad Boston-bred kings of American ska — have hosted two decades of multi-band Hometown Throwdown gigs in Boston clubs around the holidays. But this weekend, the Mighty Mighty BossToneS are rolling the dice in warmer weather, launching an inaugural event they hope will be annual called the Cranking & Skanking Fest. The BossToneS will be joined by reggae legends Toots & The Maytals, LA ska-rockers Fishbone, The Bouncing Souls, The Pietasters and five other bands. It takes place Saturday, Aug. 25, outside the Palladium in Worcester, with gates at 2 p.m.

Barrett, 54, admits to having some nervousness about it all. “We wanted another part of the year where we come back to Massachusetts,” he says, on the phone from the west coast, “but I’m anxious. People are telling me, ‘Why don’t you relax? It’s gonna be fine, people will show up and we’ll all have a great time,’ but until we put the lid on it, I’m going to be anxious and nervous ‘cause I want it to be good. I don’t want to hear: ‘Stick to the Throwdown, dude.’ ”

Before there was the BossToneS, Barrett sang in several hardcore punk bands. But then he saw English Beat opening for The Pretenders at the Orpheum Theater. “I said, ‘What the hell is this?! Oh my god, this is the greatest!’ I just couldn’t believe it. [Singers] Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling! The music was incredible, they were saying [political] things and it so struck a chord with me. I had to have all things ska that existed, which brought me away from new wave or punk — although it was sort of part of it. This was the perfect marriage of the two for me.”

“Then,” he adds, “I went back and did my homework and learned what they were inspired by. The second ska wave brought me in, so, I was part of the third wave.”

The U.K. spawned a dizzying number of musical trends that would come and go like lightning — remember the New Romantic movement or Northern soul? There was every possibility that would be ska’s fate, but that was not the case. Ska’s popularity ebbed and flowed, but variations of the English Beat, the Specials and The Selector continue thrive on the club level. And an American ska scene, with the BossToneS at the forefront, emerged as well.


“I think that the fact of the matter is ska sounds damn good,” says Barrett, of the genre’s survival and popularity. “You can’t go wrong with a dub beat going. And you build on that with melody, adding lyrics that say something. When it’s done right, there’s nothing better than when a large-sized band is giving everything they got up on stage.”

“The BossToneS was formed and founded on the concept of doing whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted to it,” he adds. (There have been various players throughout the years and six official alumni.) “That brought us out of the gate. If that’s the mission statement, you’ve got a lot of space to work with and it’s hard for people to call you on it and say, ‘You can’t do that!’ Says who? The hard part is delivering quality and I feel like we’ve had a great deal of success doing that as well. If I’m the dumbest Bosstone, which I probably am, it’s a pretty smart group of guys, so why pretend we’re not?”

The nine-piece BossToneS formed in 1983, recorded four albums prior to their big breakthrough. They worked hard, played fast and had an kinetic on-stage energy. Barrett shared the spotlight with dancer Ben Carr. They had their big mainstream breakthrough in 1997 with “The Impression That I Get” from their platinum-selling fifth album “Let’s Face It” album. They went on hiatus from 2004 to 2006, after which they released a trilogy of albums — the most recent, "While We're At It," earlier this year. Nowadays, the the BossToneS members consider the band a part-time venture.

Barrett, most prominently, is the announcer on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” “When he hangs around the BossToneS, he’s one of us,” says Barrett, of Kimmel. “He loves playing the clarinet; he’s been doing that since high school. When he came to Boston he played with us, wearing BossToneS clothes, standing in the horn section. He’s played with us five or six times including our last appearance on the ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’ show."

The other BossToneS all have different non-Bosstone pursuits. Barrett’s main co-songwriter partner, bassist Joe Gittleman, is an assistant professor of performing arts at Lyndon State College in Vermont. Other BossToneS have various “day jobs.”

Though Barrett’s lived in California for years, “Boston is in my f----- veins. I will never have the opportunity to learn a place and know a place intimately. At my rapidly advancing age, I couldn’t learn another town like that. I live in a place called Altadena with my wife and two children. It’s close to Pasadena, which is kind of an older-looking city which I appreciate more than I appreciate somewhere like downtown LA. But you know where my heart is.”

As with their musical kin Dropkick Murphys — or as Barrett calls them "my younger brothers" — Boston and its environs continue to factor into their lives and music. For example, “The West Ends” from the latest album:

“I grew up there and I came of age there and I named my band after it. I starved on the streets and I succeeded on the streets of Boston. And everything that ever happened to me that was of any real importance, happened there. I didn’t just know how to take the T, I knew how to walk through the tunnels when the T was closed at night. I knew that if I stuck my head up through a sewer cover I knew I’d be just a little south of Lansdowne Street.”

“While We’re At It,” Barret explains, is the final piece of an album trilogy: “’Pin Points and Gin Joints’” [in 2009] was loose ends and uncharted territories at the same time. ‘The Magic of Youth’ [in 2011] was proudly and unapologetically who we were after everything we’ve been through. ‘While We’re At It’ was always going to be whatever we gathered or whatever ground was gained from one and two. I knew and planned all along that there would be thematic threads that would be woven into the fabric of all three. I also wanted there to be a huge cast of characters when all was said and done.”

BossToneS songs tend to be observational, whether Barrett is using first, second or third person. But they’re all pretty personal.

“When it comes to writing,” Barrett says, “it’s difficult for me to create anything that I’m not feeling, experiencing or observing. I don’t think that’s changed drastically since the beginning. I had a great deal of confidence in the lyrics I was writing — perhaps I shouldn’t have but I’m glad I did. I’ve always loved poetry and song lyrics and figuring out colorful and creative ways of saying things.”

Most BossToneS’ songs are up-tempo and optimistic-sounding. The lyrics can cut a little deeper, maybe adding some darkness. “What you’re saying as ‘darkness’ is just an ability to see things as they truly are,” says Barrett, “and the world has its many sorts of lights and variables in that sense. I think from the very beginning there were songs about us being pals and our love of Boston, but there were also songs that dealt with issues that were not so bright and cheerful and feel-good — guns or violence and racism and the fact that it sucked to us. If there’s something we felt strongly about, we would comment on. Having said that, we’re always hopeful.”

Barrett often wrestles with questions of solidarity and separation. On the new album two songs, "Unified" and "Divide," stress the need for community. “So much has come from the strong bonds I’ve created with other people,” Barrett says. “In the beginning ‘unity’ was a battle cry or an exciting concept. At this point, at least for me, it is time tested. I’ve found it to be very useful, effective and a source of great comfort on so many levels.”

Barrett sings about particular issues or situations, many set amid the backdrop of living in the age of Trump. On the lounge-y “After the Music Is Over,” the CD’s closing track, Barrett sings, “How can it be insanity has now become the norm?/ Who knew we could just go from the good so quickly to bad form/ To think you can blink or turn your back and then turn back around/ And everything is different inside out and upside down."

No one is named but the assumption is that Barrett’s singing about America in the age of Trump. “Confirmed,” says Barrett, “and how could it not be? You are a very perceptive person, but you really don’t have to be on that one.”

Barrett’s take on “While We’re At It”: “I think we delivered. I guess I say this every time,” he says, with a laugh, “but the reason I say that every time is I feel strongly about it. Whether the tree falls in the forest or not, we don’t give a s---.  We know that it’s a damn good sounding tree.”


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Jim Sullivan Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.



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