Albuquerque is a bizarre city. Looking from a northeastern perspective, it looks like a few Philadelphian or Bostonian suburbs crammed into one to make a gigantic suburbia rather than an impressive metropolis. Whenever I see performances in Albuquerque, New Mexico I have to wonder what artists think about the city, what kind of audience the performers anticipate that night. The city is certainly an enigma among American cultural centers.
Both of the performers I caught on that fateful Friday the 13th, A Wilhelm Scream and Streetlight Manifesto, are from those northeastern suburbs that Albuquerque so emulates, and they seemed very comfortable and at ease the whole night. At one point during A Wilhelm Scream’s set, vocalist Nuno Pereira noted that he was feeling “a little sick” earlier, but after a few songs he felt like “a million bucks.” From then on, his band launched into a frenetic set of their trademark hardcore punk, relentlessly energizing the crowd for the headlining Streetlight Manifesto.
The venue, the Launchpad, is tight to say the least, so much that the bouncers would not allow any photography in fear of destroyed cameras. The building’s odd, hole-in-the-wall narrow shape makes a perfect tunnel for sound, but for A Wilhelm Scream, it distorted their songs further than their drop-tuned guitars and heavy dissonance already did. Hence, there were some unclear moments, but the band managed to stay together through technical breakdowns and constantly changing tempos. “The Horse”, which was the easy highlight of the band’s set, was mostly instrumental and featured the band’s commendable technical talent. At one point, both guitarists and the bassist were two hand tapping in perfect rhythm with each other while the drummer kept a comfortable groove behind them. Despite being the most difficult song of the night, it was obviously the most rehearsed and tight song they performed. Perhaps the best aspect of their performance, however, was how much fun they had on stage. They joked with each other while playing, improvised through excellent communication throughout the band, and smiled at the crowd, interacting through their body language.
Their set lasted about 45 minutes, and after a surprisingly short soundcheck, the seven members of Streetlight Manifesto crammed themselves onto the small stage, with singer/songwriter/guitarist Tomas Kalnoky pushed up against the side of the stage to make room for his four horn players—a bari sax, alto sax, trombone, and trumpet. The juxtaposition between A Wilhelm Scream’s furious hardcore and Streetlight Manifesto’s fun ska-punk seemed to make little sense to the crowd, and circle pits continued throughout the night. Kalnoky’s handling of the audience also differed greatly from Pereia’s. While Pereia seemed to appreciate his audience, Kalnoky kept an elitist air about him, at times stopping the music for about five minutes and rejecting requests left and right from the audience. It was funny the first and second times, but the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth just got old. He forgot his lyrics and other band members had to take over for him; luckily, the band has picked up fantastic Kalnoky impressions along the way. At one point, I looked up after talking to a friend for a few seconds and was shocked to see the trombonist, not Kalnoky, singing.
What made Streetlight’s performance so brilliant for avid fans, however, was the band’s ability to reinvent themselves in each song. Since Kalkony has done many of his classic songs (“Here’s to Life”, “Keasbey Nights”) with many different bands, he can take all of his various arrangements and combine them into one. Even some of Streetlight’s originals like “Point / Counterpoint” and “Down, Down, Down to Mephisto’s Cafe” were drastically rearranged. Drummer Chris Thatcher and bassist Pete McCullough changed the groove every eight measures, it seemed, switching from half time to double time on the fly. The horns remained tight and together throughout technical stacatto passages and difficult rhythmic changes. All Kalnoky had to do was provide some guitar and start the crowd, who could (and did) continue the vocals for him. While Tomas Kalkony was a disappointment in his overly sarcastic, apathetic nature, his band carried him through the set, establishing Streetlight Manifesto as the most musical ska act around.
Kalkony didn’t even leave the stage before giving the necessary encore. He forgot the words and stopped to ask one of the horn players, who had left the stage for a bit, to ask what was next. After continuing, the rest of the band came on, including the drummer who wore nothing but a towel. As soon as the band came back on, the party started all over again for a glorious five minutes. Perhaps Kalkony did not give the best performance of his life, but the music on display made sure the audience still had fun.