Cool rhythms, cask ales: Chris Murray headlines ska and reggae night at Union Brewing 

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Chris Murray is coming to Indy, and you can thank Facebook.

Murray’s acoustic solo ska act will hit Carmel’s Union Brewing, just off the Monon trail, on Friday night. Murray, who’s fronted his own groups and played with legends of the genre — both first- and second-wave acts — wanted to round out a Midwest swing, so he alerted The Great Zuckerberg Billoard.

“I just asked if anyone wanted to put a show together around that time, let me know,” Chris tells me when I reach him via phone at his place in Los Angeles. The Circle City Deacons — an Indy act specializing in horn-heavy ska, soul and rocksteady riffs – saw the post, reached out and put Murray in touch with the nano-brewery.

More specifically, it was Deacons’ drummer Cristian Riquelme, also known in Indy for his work with Harley Poe and the Innocent Boys, who asked Murray to include an Indy stop on his most recent tour. “I've known about Chris since his first solo release off the Moon Records, The 4-Track Adventures of Venice Shoreline Chris way back in  the late ‘90s,” Riquelme says. “He was on tour with the Skatalites, I'm pretty sure, or it could have been The Slackers. They played at the Emerson during a period where there was a surge of really cool ska bands touring and putting out records.”

(The Deacons will open the show and back Murray on a few tunes.)

Murray, despite his current L.A address, is Canadian by birth. Which begs the question: How does a kid from Toronto develop a love of ska music, the reggae forerunner that saw a massive British revival in the late 1970s and early ‘80s?

“I came up when 2-Tone [the record label] was big — Madness and the Specials and bands like that — that hit my radar first,” says Chris. “Coincidental to that, Toronto has the third-largest Jamaican population outside of Jamaica. It’s a commonwealth country, and when people were leaving in drove in the ‘50s and ‘60s and onwards, a community started there. Reggae music was never something that was so exotic when I was growing up.”

Murray’s parallel exposure to both ska and reggae inspired a love for both, but Chris eventually found himself working with one of the bands that inspired legions of ‘80s college kids to put on skinny black ties, The Specials.

“I did a run of dates with them as equipment manager. I would drive the instruments and the amplifiers separately from their tour bus. I’d arrive ahead of time and set up all their gear … so they could plug in and do soundcheck.”

Murray watched the act night after night. “Apprenticeship is too strong a word, but watching those guys taught me a lot.” Namely, it taught Murray the nature of the true lineage from ska to reggae, and Murray soon found himself wanting to emulate the Specials’ take on Jamaican music. The punk-and-rock-infused ska that was being committed to 2-Tone’s vinyl discs led Murray to explore the original ska cuts as much as he could.

What Murray really dug was a ska-sans-horn sound, and his Toronto band King Apparatus was built in a similar fashion — unlike Madness, the vibe he was after was more “aggressive,” according to Chris: “Two guitars, an organ … my function was as the vocalist.” He was also a songwriter (he’s the co-writer of Hepcat’s “I Can’t Wait”) and the self-described “guy with the guitar by the campfire.” That’s what led him to what he’s doing now: standing on stage with an acoustic axe, playing and singing. “It was just something I’d always been doing. After King Apparatus, I didn’t feel motivated to put another band together.” (Murray’s often backed, however, by his group The Chris Murray Combo, a two-piece bass/drums rhythm section. He also cut his disc Slackness with NYC act The Slackers.)

Murray landed in Los Angeles and settled there after seeing some of the acts in that town who were “playing authentic ska and early reggae and rock steady in a way that I had not been seeing anywhere else. On the East Coast, there were some bands that would cover a Skatalites, track, but the intent they would bring to it was more of a modern reinterpretation of the melody.” Seeing bands like Jump With Joey and Hepcat convinced Murray that SoCal was where he needed to stay. Murray became a promoter, too, creating a weekly series of shows called “The Bluebeat Lounge” at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood that ran from 2003 to 2009.

As for the set he’s performing these days, it’s 90 percent original material, but the man’s not afraid to take requests: “I’m a big fan of the old music, and there are some songs I love to sing. Often, I find solo shows will be in part driven by requests. “

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About The Author

Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck has been writing for NUVO (as well as several other Indiana publications) for nearly 20 years while moonlighting as a radio host. He became Managing Editor of NUVO in 2013. He's authored four books and also reports for WISH-TV's Boomer TV program.

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