Few places sound like a more enticing spot to hang out and play music than the shores of the Cape or Rhode Island on an August evening—unless, perhaps, you’re used to living on the beach in Panama.
That’s what Dan Vitale, frontman of Boston’s venerable ska outfit Bim Skala Bim, has done for the past 12 years. He runs an eco resort and recording studio in Bocas del Toro. “It is a lot more laid-back here,” Vitale says by email. “Unfortunately that means you never know if anyone will show up for things like work, rehearsals.… Though I really love it here, it is hard to get used to that part. But I can stare at the sea [and] swim in the sea every day, so it balances out.”
He also tours at least twice a year with Bim Skala Bim, which hit Europe in April and is storming New England for its fifth summer in a row after a seven-year hiatus. Bim comes home to play the Middle East Downstairs on Aug. 14, spending the next two nights at the Beachcomber in Wellfleet and Hookfest in Portsmouth, N.H. The band also plays on Aug. 22 at Grumpy’s in Falmouth, in addition to two dates in Rhode Island and two in Maine, capping its busiest recent annual run.
It’s an extra-special occasion with the release of Chet’s Last Call, recorded last summer at Wooly Mammoth Sound in Waltham—the group’s first album since Krinkle in 2000. Bassist Mark Ferranti says he was doubtful going into the sessions but surprised by the results: an album that stands tall in Bim’s catalog.
“We had never gone into the studio so unprepared before, so that was definitely freaking me out,” says Ferranti, one of a few Bim members who remain around Boston. Yet the group banged out 18 tracks in three days, starting on the Monday morning after a Sunday night show. “We got stuff down really fast,” he says. “Probably 90 percent of it is the fact that we’ve been playing together for so long.”
Formed in 1983, the group still revolves around the classic core lineup of singer Vitale, bassist Ferranti, trombonist Vinny Nobile, guitarist Jim Jones, keyboardist John Cameron, drummer Jim Arhelger and percussionist Rick Barry.
Just a step ahead of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bim helped pioneer the third wave of ska in America after English “2 Tone” bands the English Beat, the Specials and the Selecter led the second wave at the dawn of the ’80s. A precursor to reggae and rock steady, ska originated in Jamaica in the late ’50s, but Ferranti recalls being a teenage reggae fan influenced by those English ska revivalists. “It was a natural extension of reggae, only it’s faster, with a little more energy,” he says. “It was a good place for a bass player, because there were interesting bass lines.”
Of course one needn’t be a bass player to feel the syncopated pull of ska. “It’s easy to dance to, and it’s not so serious, generally, though it can be,” Ferranti says. “Those English Beat and Specials songs, for their political content, were unbeatable. [It was] a political message, but the music didn’t come across as heavy-handed. It’s like the people’s music, which is also the roots of reggae.”
Bim Skala Bim rolls its own breezy political subtext with “Everybody’s Got Their Style,” the lead track from Chet’s Last Call that celebrates diversity. “We’re all on this ball together,” Ferranti says. “When it rains, it rains on everyone, and when it’s a nice, sunny day, it’s nice for everyone.”
Cue that sun with the horn-laced bounce of “Summer of Ska.” Trombonist Nobile and saxophonist Dave Butts recorded their lines on a portable studio setup in the Beachcomber dressing room. “I was about to cry,” Ferranti says. “It was like the perfect theme music, ready for a movie or TV show.”
Chet’s Last Call takes its name from another club, a dive bar near the old Boston Garden where Bim played early gigs. “Some of our grandest memories are from playing Chet’s,” he says. “It was just a bizarre environment. Everyone was in it together.”
Bim Skala Bim plays the Middle East Downstairs on Aug. 14.