Photo by Vincent Ta
Photo by Vincent Ta

The weather was chilly and overcast for the first time in a week here in Riverside, but Stranger and the Debonaires kept a summery atmosphere alive through their fusions of reggae/ska/jazz/soul/funk––and whatever other genre of music I might have forgotten––performed in front of an intimate crowd at the Barn last Wednesday, April 24.

Stranger opened the show. Both the guitarist/lead vocalist and the pianist walked out with dreads down their backs. The band hails from the south bay of San Diego and their upbeat music boasts the sun, beach and love. Smooth bass lines and funky organ melodies kept the audience swaying.

Their laid-back reggae rhythm put the audience in a trance. Gone was the stress of midterms and group projects. Stranger’s sound permeated into the crowd and everyone began connecting with their carefree and trusting attitude.  In their song “All Yours,” vocalist David Ornelas said it all: “If you feel afraid don’t fret / just grab my heart / I’m all yours.”

I thought Stranger might lose the audience with their amount of slower reggae songs, but they proved me wrong when their trombonist reached front and center for a block of fast paced, ska-inspired jams. They finished their set with “Universal Love” off their latest EP, “Above It All.” The lyrics boasted the need for acceptance of all types of love, no matter who you are: “The only truth I have seen in this time / The only way to unite / Universal love.” They finished their set by tossing out free CDs and mingling with the crowd.

Once the Debonaires got on stage, I wondered how they would all be able to fit. Besides a guitarist, bassist and drummer they also had an organist, trombonist, trumpet player and saxophonist. The party started from the second they began to play. I couldn’t help but notice the smiles from all members of the band, how they would joke around and make faces at one another. It led to a very fun atmosphere that the smaller Barn crowd recognized and enjoyed.

The Debonaires formed back in the early 90s right here in Riverside. Their music is inspired from the Jamaican ska revival subculture that became popular through Los Angeles and Southern California. They haven’t stuck to just one style of music, instead pulling from American R&B and jazz of the past.

It’s impossible to place this band into one category. You have to look at each song separately. Many songs start off with a very funky organ and drum beat. Others highlight the organist, who resembled a mad scientist as he slammed down on his ivory keys. Not long after, the trumpeter came in for a solo that took me back to old school jazz greats like Miles Davis as he blasted out notes faster than a machine gun. The trombone and saxophone hit in waves, crashing into the audience with each song.

Kip Wirtzfield, lead vocalist and saxophonist, had a very gritty and raspy voice that resonated in my chest. I felt it more than anything. The crowd really started dancing when they played their hit, “See You Again,” a song about letting go and moving on. The end of the song feels like an old 70s music soundtrack with a funky guitar rhythm and Wirtzfield belting out, “Now I’m free.”

Halfway through their set, they reverted to more reggae-influenced songs that put the crowd into a bit of a lull. People began milling around and looking at their shoes. Wirtzfield picked up on this and came back with some funk and jazz hits, including the last song they played of the night, “No Dice.” The song jumped back and forth between rapid horn notes and smooth melodic organ solos with a ghostly soul. The guitar ska rhythms put the crowd into a frenzy. A circle pit of skanking formed in front of the stage. The band knew they were doing their job when audience members began swaying their arms and legs to the beat. The Debonaires left the stage with fans chanting, “One more song!” and even if the clouds were still out, it was a bright evening inside the Barn.