Dicky Barrett has a really poor voice.
At least, that's what he says. As the charismatic front man for Boston's plaid boys, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Barrett grates and grinds at every vocal turn with a nightmarish wail that has been compared to an upbeat Lemmy Kilmiser of Motorhead with a little Tom Waits and Jimmy Durante thrown in.
"It's the way I've always sung," growled a friendly Barrett from Virginia Beach, Va. "I use the word "sung' real loosely."
Aesthetics aside, Barrett and the Bosstones have raised enough hell to establish an impressive fan base, one that keeps this wily eight-man crew of twentysomethings satisfied, whether critics are or not.
Their eclectic swirl of good-time music fuses the perky pick-it-up sound of pre-reggae ska with monstrous hard-core guitars, Barrett's bulldog vocals and a plethora of plaid. Ably backed by the three-piece "Hurtin' for Certain" horn section, these boys whip up a caustic yet addictive musical concoction that has helped the Mighty ones dodge definition.
They've been called the mutant spawn of Madness and Motorhead. The illegitimate children of ska and punk. And with their first major-label release, Don't Know How to Party, the Bosstones have stage-dived further into originality.
"We make Bosstones albums," said Barrett. "They're not ska albums. They're not punk or hard-core albums. It's our own brand of music."
"Ska-core," as it has come to be called, originated in the early '80s, when Barrett, bass fiddle man Joe Gittleman, guitarist Nate Albert, saxophonist Tim "Johnny Vegas" Burton and dancer/singer Ben Carr formed the original Bosstones. After bombing an opening set for funk gurus Fishbone, the Bosstones split up, and later reformed as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, this time adding Dennis Brockenborough and Kevin Lenear to round out the "Hurtin for Certain" horns. (Drummer Joe Sirois was plugged into the lineup two years ago.)
The reincarnated Bosstones released their first album, Devil's Night Out, on Boston indie label Taang! Their hard-core/ska/punk/metal mix caught the attention of many a plaid-clad fan; Barrett's tartan obsession was a part of the Bosstones long before the flannel flag was flown by would-be grungemeisters.
The last Bosstones release, More Noise and Other Disturbances, was the groundbreaker for Beantown's baddest. Their single Where'd You Go became a local hit and vaulted them into the limelight and onto a national Converse ad. Since then, the band hasn't changed much, although some fans might disagree after a listen to their new album.
"You're damned if you do, damned if you don't, you know?" Barrett said. "If we need another More Noise and Other Disturbances, then people will say we don't know how to change and that this is all we can do _ nothing new here. But if we made a Don't Know How to Party, people say, "I don't like this one _ why are they changing so much?' So we just had to go with our hearts and make the eight of us happy. That's all that counts."
Don't Know How to Party packs quite a wallop. While it isn't all ska, as Barrett is quick to point out, it is all Bosstones. Songs such as A Man Without and Issachar maintain the harder-than-calculus anthems that make live Bosstones shows such a brutal pleasure.
Barrett, who personally answers every bit of Mighty mail, recalls a letter from a ska fan in San Diego: "(The letter) goes "I got your tape and played it in my car. I had to pull over. I was sad. It sucked. I had to smoke a cigarette. What happened to my favorite band? Then I started to think, what do I like the Bosstones for? Because they're never afraid to do something different. So this time I played it and instead of listening for what wasn't there, I listened to what was there. Now it's my favorite album.' "
Says Barrett, "I thought that was pretty cool."
AT A GLANCE
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones with Magadog and Dem'Tings
At Jannus Landing at 8 p.m. June 27. Tickets, $8; $10 day of show.