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Here Comes the Judge

Judge Roughneck on the insult that turned it into a band.

"They called me the day before they were going to take some band photos," Hegel recalls. "Byron said, 'Bring your suit and come on down.'"

The players' strong reputations eased Judge Roughneck's way into the Denver scene; from the beginning, the band was able to get bookings not at venues where covers are the rule, but at clubs that specialized in originals. The high caliber of the musicianship helped, too, as did the act's particular take on ska. Rather than playing ska-core, the brand of ska-laced punk that's so prevalent these days, the band focused on ska's roots, when the style's jazz roots were more prominently displayed. The result was an approach that drew younger ska devotees even as it proved accessible enough for a somewhat older crowd. This broader-than-usual appeal struck some observers, like those at the Hooligan, as a conscious attempt to shape the music to fit a certain demographic, a charge Reitzig denies. "It's just that we all bring something different to the table," he says. "We bring jazz, we bring R&B, we bring heavy metal, we bring ska, we bring reggae. And somehow it all blends really well."

Nonetheless, the instrumentalists continued to see Judge Roughneck as a side project, a lark. "If you look at it, we could have broken up a lot of times along the way," Jones admits. "But something would always happen before we could."

"Like playing Red Rocks," Shaw points out.
"Yeah," Jones continues. "We got asked to play Red Rocks for Reggae on the Rocks. And no way are we going to break up before that happens. But it took a long time before I was ready to say that this was my band. People would ask me about it, and I would say 'I play in it' instead of saying 'It's my band.'"

This began to change as the bandmembers started contributing their own compositions. Jones came up with "Rude One," which he sees as both a dance tune and a subtle examination of the ska-core phenomenon, and "Angry Youth," a number that he concedes "isn't really a ska tune. The music is jazz. It's a swing tune if it's anything." Shaw, meanwhile, penned "Rich Girl," about an upper-class female dating a lower-class male, and several others. Slowly, these efforts were integrated into the band's live sets, and when they went over just as well as the covers, Shaw and his supporters (including drummer Jeff Mince, who stepped in for James) decided to record the material for posterity. The result is Rude One, which includes only two covers: a ska-flavored rendition of the Henry Mancini-penned theme to A Shot in the Dark (the second Pink Panther movie) and a mini-medley that merges Symarip's "Skinhead Moonstomp" with the Beat's "Monkey Murders." The disc is due in stores May 1; the band will celebrate its arrival during a headlining gig that evening at the Bluebird Theater. Before then, on Friday, April 11, the players will join the Psychodelic Zombiez at Jamnesty, a fundraiser for Amnesty International set to take place at the Ogden Theatre.

Making the transition from a cover band to one that specializes in homegrown stuff is a difficult task, but Judge Roughneck seems up to it. At its showcase earlier this month at the Flamingo Cantina during the 1997 edition of South by Southwest, the sound didn't flow as naturally as have past turns, a situation that Reitzig chalks up to a combination of nerves and the cold temperatures that settled over Austin for the majority of the festival. The material, too, was somewhat spotty, at times seeming more like an amalgamation of soloing opportunities than actual songs. But the undeniable skills of the bandmates saved the day: There are no weak links among these instrumentalists. All of them can play and play well--so well, in fact, that even a relatively stiff performance managed to get a sizable throng up and dancing. As Reitzig notes, "At other clubs, we saw a lot of people standing around and looking up at bands, which seems to be the typical way things work down there. So we were happy that we had so many people up and going."

In Shaw's words, no one "came up and offered us a $100,000 contract" after the SXSW date, but he's not overly concerned. "When the album comes out, that's when we're going to start actively pursuing record labels and lawyers and management and all that kind of stuff."

Given this schedule, it's no surprise that Shaw's solo work is on a burner so far back that it's not even on the stove anymore. "I've got three songs pretty much finished, and six others up here," Shaw says, tapping the side of his head. "And I'll finish them someday. But I've got other things to do right now." Indeed, all the Judges (including drummer Seiver, a recent Berklee College of Music grad who stepped in for Mince late last year) seem committed to taking the band as far as it will go. And if that sounds like a moneymaking scheme, well, that's fine by Jones.

"Why deny it?" he asks. "We're musicians. This is our job.

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