[27 August 2009]
This ska show brought out a sizable crowd to Houston’s Warehouse Live despite it being a Monday night. Opening band The Supervillains are an Orlando punk/ska act that seemed to have a lot of fans of their own in attendance. These fans were easily recognizable due to the various T-shirts they were wearing sporting pro-pot messages, many of the which were available from The Supervillains merch table. Yes, The Supervillains are apparently very passionate about their love of marijuana. It was tough to decipher most of their lyrics due to the venue’s typically boomy sound, but the fact that the guitarist had some serious waist-length dreadlocks was testament enough that they might practice whatever they were preaching. I’ve complained about Warehouse Live’s sound before, but it bears repeating. Prospective venue owners, if you are planning to open a new club inside a repurposed warehouse, please, please, please invest in some acoustic tiles and possibly a drop-ceiling to keep the sound from simply drifting up into the rafters.
Anyway, the 15-20 minutes of the set that we saw was pretty entertaining. The band has two lead singers—the aforementioned lead guitarist and their drummer. It’s always a bit weird to see a drummer doing lead vocals, but it’s even weirder when the band also puts the drumset front and center. It’s not like the drummer is more visible behind his kit in front than he is sitting behind the band. The Supervillains songs were fun, though, particularly the shout-along romp of “St. Thomas”. The band managed to get the whole crowd dutifully yelling “St. Thomas!!” at the appropriate moments. But the whole all-weed, all-the-time thing was getting a little old—even in the short time they played.
Second up was early ‘80s ska band The English Beat. This is one of those names I’ve been aware of for a long time, but never bothered to delve into their catalog. Turns out that the current incarnation of the band features original singer/guitarist Dave Wakeling and a cast of fortysomething sidemen and is something of a nostalgia act. The original band broke up in 1983 after only five years and three albums together, but Wakeling started using the name again in 2007. Despite my unfamiliarity with their material, the Beat put on a really fun, danceable show. Technically a co-headliner, their set was about 75 minutes long and filled with upbeat songs that really got the audience moving. It was clear that Wakeling was having a good time, and he was ably assisted by toaster Antonee First Class, who shared lead vocal duties. A highlight of the set was the band’s cover of Smokey Robinson’s Motown classic, “Tears of a Clown”, which was an excellent feature for alto sax player Nat Love’s soloing skills. They closed out the set with “Mirror in the Bathroom”, probably their most recognizable song, at least in North America. After the sloppy Supervillains, it was a nice contrast to see a band that is both professional and clearly having fun.
Reel Big Fish hit the stage with their usual goofy swagger a little after 10:30 pm. This time around, their high-powered cover of a-ha’s “Take on Me” opened the set. The crowd, by now a little bit thinner, was extremely enthusiastic, which seemed to keep the band’s banter to a minimum. RBF are known as much for their hijinks as for their music; their MySpace page even lists their genres as “Ska/ rock/ comedy.” But with a locked-in audience, they mostly stuck to the songs. The set was heavy on music from the band’s early career, with songs such as “Trendy”, “241”, “She Has a Girlfriend Now”, and “Everything Sucks” from Turn the Radio Off all popping up during the show. Why Do They Rock So Hard? was also well-represented, as the band played “Brand New Song”, “Thank You for Not Moshing”, and “The Set Up (You Need This).” The rest of the set was peppered with songs from this year’s lackluster cover album Fame, Fortune, and Fornication as well as a handful of songs from the band’s 2000’s output.
In the live setting, a song like Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time” works better alongside the band’s original tunes than it does on an all-covers disc. But RBF’s versions of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Eagles’ “The Long Run” still sounded perfunctory live. This is probably because those songs have been overplayed for the past 30 years and Reel Big Fish was pretty much doing straight covers of them. Once we got past those bathroom breaks, though, the rest of the set was solid, with Cheer Up highlights “Good Thing” and “Where Have You Been?” making appearances alongside later songs like “Your Guts (I Hate ‘Em)” and “The New Version of You.”
Throughout the set, trumpeter/guitarist/backing vocalist Scott Klopfenstein bounced around the stage, providing energy and sharp harmonies to complement Aaron Barrett’s lead vocals. Despite the relative lack of joking around, Barrett still managed to get in his share of guitar solos and mugging to the crowd. The other two horns, trumpeter John Christianson and trombonist Dan Regan, stuck to their spots at stage right but played with enthusiasm and seemed to relish the opportunity to do gang vocals. The show ended with a predictable encore that included live staple “Don’t Start a Band” and finished with the band’s minor hit “Sellout”, which is always fun no matter how many times you hear it. Reel Big Fish may be in cruise control as far as their recorded output goes these days, but they still know how to put on a high-energy, fun concert.