Heading west on the ska train

By Kevin DeVlaming

Ska is far from dead.

Many might remember the ska revival that occurred in the mainstream during the mid-nineties, with bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt and Sublime all becoming household names. While such bands, riding on the heels of the so-called ‘third wave’ ska movement, experienced a decline in popularity toward the end of the century, many ska artists have continued to thrive as underground acts on independent labels.

Westbound Train is one such band. A quick look at the success of their current tour with fellow ska acts Streetlight Manifesto and Reel Big Fish reveals that the demand for quality ska across North America is still strong.
“Everybody on the tour has been awesome,” says Obi Fernandez, singer and trombonist for Westbound Train. “The kids have been really great. The shows have been packed.”

That the band borrowed their name from the title of an old Dennis Brown song is telling of their approach to the genre. Opting for a more classic approach to ska than most third wave acts, Fernandez cites musical influences as varied as Otis Redding, the Ethiopians, Sam Cooke and Ken Booth.

“Ska is the music we are influenced by, and it’s what we listen to,” says Fernandez, “But we’re trying for more than the classic Jamaican sound. We’re also working from classic R&B and old jazz records. That’s where we’re coming from.”

Fernandez has been inspired by ska closer to the music which came out of Jamaica in the ’60s since his youth. Growing up in New York, he had influences as varied as the scene at that time.

“I remember being 16, and [New York ska icon] King Django hooking me up with this mix tape,” recalls Fernandez. “One side was the Skatalites, and the other was Prince Buster. I just wanted to be in a band that stuck to the roots of ska.”

The undeniable appeal of Westbound Train’s unique brand of ska has not gone unnoticed. This past year has marked a significant period of change for the Boston-based band. They’ve signed to Hellcat Records, run by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong as an offshoot of Epitaph. Their third full-length album, Transitions, was released on Hellcat in September.

“The name of the album fits us perfectly right now, in every way shape or form,” Fernandez says. “We’ve been touring for seven months straight, so it’s the transition from touring part-time to touring full-time. It’s also the transition of growing up as musicians and as people, and of going from a band that wasn’t on a label to being on Hellcat Records.”

Riding on the excitement of a new album and a year of successful touring, Fernandez is looking forward to what the future has in store for Westbound Train. With their relatively eclectic style of ska music, it’s not hard to accept that the future might hold some more mass appeal.

“From here, I see the band spending a lot of time on the road over the next couple of years, hopefully playing to very diverse audiences,” says Fernandez. “There’s something in Westbound Train for everyone.”

Hop aboard the Westbound Train Thur., Nov. 9 at the MacEwan Hall Ballroom, alongside Reel Big Fish, Streetlight Manifesto and Suburban Legends.

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