On a recent Tuesday in Lower Manhattan, Vic Ruggiero, the leader of the New York ska band The Slackers, was without his group. Sitting on a barstool, he smacked a tambourine with his right boot, blew a harmonica, and strummed a battered electric guitar covered in duct tape. “My attempts to play calypso,” he said with a grin between songs, “they still turn out sounding mildly country.” Ruggiero has warm, sleepy eyes, and he often bursts into a wheeze of laughter.
Thirteen people had gathered at Harley-Davidson of NYC, an odd spot for songs and coffee, but an acoustic fit for a musician who relies on few instruments. A motorcycle hung overhead, suspended from the ceiling. Ruggiero later recalled to me that he wanted one years ago to get around the city. “But Vic,” he remembered his mother protesting, “how you gonna carry all your stuff?”
He never bought the bike. He plays the electric organ with The Slackers and packs light when solo, cramming an assortment of gear into his worn canvas bag and throwing it over his shoulder. Ruggiero, who turns 43 in November, has been making music in New York since he taught himself the piano in elementary school. He later sang with the Metropolitan Opera, then took up the guitar and learned hardcore punk to impress a girl. He discovered The Specials and The Skatalites later, around 1991 at NYU, and was inspired to form a trio. Three members grew to six, and their sound evolved over the next two decades, pairing Jamaican rock ’n’ roll with 1960s-era British Invasion and garage rock. The Slackers have since released more than a dozen recordings independently.
“I was tryin’ to sell this one to my band,” Ruggiero told an audience earlier this year, “And they said, ‘Nah, it sounds like a Vic song.’” (When Ruggiero talks, “song” comes out “sawng.”) His new album, This, collects 11 re-recorded versions of these “Vic songs,” those better suited to the man than his band. For those unaware of Ruggiero’s catalog, This offers a muscular starting point; unscramble the title, and you get Hits. Those familiar with his songbook will hear the unexpected: dense arrangements and clean, tighter takes. This is not by accident. “There’s got to be a billion Springsteen, Dylan, Costello fans out there that just don’t listen to ska music or punk music,” Mitch Goodman, the manager of the Unison label, told me from his studio in Los Angeles. “So they don’t know he exists.” Goodman hopes to change that by marketing this “high-fidelity” record “to the masses,” as he put it, through aggressive promotion and distribution. The approach couldn’t be more foreign to Ruggiero. But he was game last February, when Goodman convinced him to fly out west.
They had last worked together in 2009, when Goodman fed Ruggiero breakfast and set him up with only a piano and a microphone in the living room. They captured the beautifully minimal On the Rag Time, which took eight hours to make; This took 10 days and was cut with two studio musicians.
This puts meat on the bones of Ruggiero’s leaner versions from albums like Alive at the Ladybug House and Something In My Blindspot. Those records featured a raw grace and little excess, with imperfections and tape hiss left intact. Here, his songs are not artistically improved as much as they are sonically enhanced. Age and instrumental weight have done “Parking Lot” well, and other subtleties are brought to the fore: the galloping percussion and snarling rockabilly guitar lick of “New Jersey Story”; the tender, twinkling piano of “Vacant Stare.”
Ruggiero’s solo performances have drawn from the nuances of his blues, R&B and C&W heroes, from John Lee Hooker to Billy Joel, from Toots Hibbert to Bob Dylan. “What becomes the most obvious is the change in what’s influencing him,” Marcus Geard, the long-serving bassist of The Slackers, told me. “But they’ve gone through the filter of somebody who listens to an awful lot of reggae and an awful lot of punk rock. And also classic blues—his guitar-playing is really all about that.”
The critic Robert Palmer once wrote that blues is “something of a gumbo”; the same can be said of Ruggiero’s one-man show. He sings of trust and paranoia, love and war, senility and surveillance—often in the same song. And, just as seamlessly, he rolls from covering Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City” and The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” to his own rockabilly, soul, punk-folk, and boogie-woogie originals. “He’s a throwback, he’s really cut from a classic cloth,” Ara Babajian, The Slackers’ drummer since 2002, told me from a tour stop in San Francisco. “He inhabits the dark space between the notes, the place where all the swing and magic happens.”
There’s no arguing that, in terms of sheer sound, This trumps Ruggiero’s past work. But it’s jarring, at least upon first listen, to hear him tackle anything outside the realm of a bare-bones analog approach. Perhaps that’s because he’s capable of making great music with much less at his disposal. As for his latest, “I had very little to do with it,” he admitted as he closed his set earlier this month, “except that I showed up and played my heart out.”