Reel Big Fish, Real Big Fun

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Ska dropped off my musical radar sometime immediately following graduation from high school, so I walked up to the House of Blues on Thursday night with a bit of uneasy dread lurking in my gut. I had come to see Streetlight Manifesto and Reel Big Fish, but I would be lying if I said I was excited about the show.

My photographer – the very same Pet Bassist some of you may remember from the TBB archives – and I strolled into the venue, and found it packed to the gills with young, sweaty fans. Reel Big Fish is currently on their twentieth anniversary tour, so I was surprised there didn’t seem to be many ‘vintage’ fans in attendance. I quickly formed a theory about this oddity as I listened to the band onstage: Streetlight Manifesto rocks.

A large percentage of the audience seemed to be at the show just to see this opening band, and with good reason. The seven piece out of New Jersey kept their fans singing along, dancing frantically, and crowd surfing throughout their set. Streetlight Manifesto has taken the typical third wave ska sound, and embellished it with elements of gypsy-punk, rock, and an appreciation for their horn section that can only come from classically trained musicians. The whole band looks like they are having the time of their lives onstage, and frontman/guitarist Tomas Kolnaky adds even more energy and sincerity to the band with his antics, and Southern California-like vocals.

Streetlight Manifesto is a tight, talented band who obviously love what they do. The wall of ska sound they build is well-balanced, rollicking and powerful. And it’s damn fun. Their original songs were crisp and catchy, and their interpretations of Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard” and The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” were such brilliant covers that I would gladly listen to them again on Youtube right now. I didn’t think I liked ska anymore. Streetlight Manifesto changed my mind.

The non-stop crowd surfing, dancing, and water bottle tossing had turned the majority of the crowd into slick, sweaty messes as I waited for Reel Big Fish to come on. Between dodging run-ins with glistening fans, I saw one young man with a Streetlight Manifesto logo tattoo down the length of his ribs, another dressed in an adult-sized plush dinosaur costume, and a third rather tall man zipped into a bright orange body stocking that completely covered his head and face. This wasn’t what I remembered ska enthusiasts looking like back in my day, but hey – at least it was entertaining.

A fanfare of epic music blared forth, and Reel Big Fish came capering on. Right away, they jumped into their set with breathtaking energy. The crowd went nuts, and the crowd-surfing reached a fever pitch. I stood on my tiptoes to try to catch a glimpse of Pet Bassist taking photos in the pit – I was worried about the wave of sweaty, flailing bodies pouring down on top of the press photographers down there. Then I realized, with my photographer’s background in hardcore punk and metal, he had seen much worse in his time. But still…was he okay?

Reel Big Fish didn’t give me much time to ponder this question though. They tore through their first three songs with breathless enthusiasm, and their vivacious personality was almost cartoonishly entertaining. They played like a band who had been doing this for a very long time, and still enjoyed it. They knew how to whip the crowd up into a frenzy, and did it deftly. I hadn’t seen an audience this over-the-top enthusiastic in a very, very long time, and I felt slightly afraid of them.

Reel Big Fish gave a professionally tight performance with clean sound that felt as crisp and well-rehearsed as studio recordings. With their variety of costumes, and gregarious over-acting, the band felt almost like ska’s version of The Village People. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Their fans were thrilled, and even the kids who had come only to see Streetlight Manifesto were digging Reel Big Fish.

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