One of the great memories I have of seeing concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrisson, Colorado (one of the top five places to see a concert in the United States, easily), is from July 4, 1990. One of the Lollapalooza-imitator festival shows, ????, came to town and included a diversity of musical acts from small-time rap artists to John Wesley Harding, X, and Fishbone. Fishbone’s performance was definitely the highlight of the show.
The band had just released The Reality of My Surroundings, a radio-friendly, MTV-video album that placed Fishbone in a category of their own and is considered by many to be the best album the band has produced. Frenetic front-man Angelo Moore kept the crowd hyped up with his trademark New Orleans Mardi Gras/funk-skank dancing, while the band rocked behind him with a power and energy that complimented and reverberated off the six story igneous rocks that ring the amphitheater.
Moore incited the crowd furiously. Fishbone took the stage on Independence Day with a shout of, “Happy Fourth of You Lie!” and proceeded to point out to the crowd that the Fourth of July is only Independence Day for white, rich males in this country’s true history. This in front of an audience of thousands of predominantly white, middle-class concert goers who came to hear music, drink bootlegged liquor and watch fireworks after the show. Fishbone didn’t let up from their political polemic either. Although engaging the crowd personally consistently, they also spoke between songs about the plights of blacks in America and how on Independence Day it was important to think about what true equality means and how far we have to go before reaching it.
But plenty of the people were there to have a good time, and there was a fair number of Reality of My Surroundings converts in the crowd, and people actually went with it. It was one of those moments of race-barrier destruction that can only come from a powerful charisma on a stage. Then Angelo jumped down into the crowd (much to the dismay of the hired bouncers) with a Carnival scepter and led a march-cum-conga line through the audience. I was about 50 rows up from the stage so I missed it, but he must have gone at least 20 rows up the side of a mountain, carrying waves of dancing people behind him like a Pied Piper before crowd surfing back to the stage.
I tell this story because these are the terms that Fishbone should be understood in: charisma, power, and energy. Otherwise, it would be too confusing to follow the chameleon shifts that Fishbone has gone through in 20 years of making music together. Right off the bat in their career, Fishbone were making waves and classics. Their self-titled debut in 1985 yielded the classic punk/ska/club song, “Party At Ground Zero.” Fishbone’s punk/ska sound melded with a heavy dose of funk erupted along with fellow scenemates The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fishbone continued to produce albums and EPs that were consistently better and better. By the time that Fishbone cascaded with The Reality of My Surroundings and Give a Monkey a Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe, Fishbone had hit a stride that made them one of the top black rock forces to contend with.
This high peaked and faded as the band lost members for various reasons. Managing to re-coalesce around founders Moore, Norwood Fisher, and Walter Kibby II, Fishbone went through even further metamorphosis. From a skate-punk phase, the latest Fishbone incarnation has become a funk unit par excellence. Reducing the ska and punk to a minimum and bringing out the funk to a higher level seems to have given rise to an older but happier Fishbone. The politics is still there in tunes like “AIDS & Armageddon” and “Dear God,” but it’s filtered through a less angry, less in-your-face, style, one that instead relies on the message creeping in on the back of smooth grooves and catchy rhythms.
The press release brings up Sly and the Family Stone and that definitely seems to be the direction that Fishbone went with this release. If that’s any indication, then you can see how this is not the power rock of Fishbone’s peak. Instead, this is an immensely fun album for its “up” qualities. There’s more dance than skank, an emphasis on the party and not the pain, but this is still an authentic and very alive part of the black musical experience. The Family Stone connection isn’t limited to the sound either, it’s a deliberate effort and includes a variety of guest appearances, including Gwen Steffani, George Clinton, Rick James, Perry Farrell, Donny Osmond, and the Chili Peppers crew (minus Anthony Keidis). Other musical contributions come from Blowfly, Billy Bass, Lenny Castro, the Fowler Brothers, Charles and Ivan Neville, and more. The Familyhood Nextperience that is tacked on to Fishbone’s name on this album refers to both their musician friends and the die-hard fans all over the country who the band acknowledges as supporting them in a real sense of community and sharing.
“Shakey Ground” has already made its radio debut in a few places and hopefully it will continue to expand Fishbone’s audience, specifically because it is straight-up grooving, with the feel of an old but familiar friend. “Where’d You Get Those Pants?” might be the one hidden gem on the disc that really gets the funk out. It’s got summer and sex dripping from every seam. “Everybody Is A Star” is the star-studded anthem that features the majority of the guest musicians listed above and is as much a feel-good tune as Fishbone may ever have released. The rollicking “Karma Tsunami” closes the disc an up beat and even fades out to the sound a little girl’s laughter.
Interestingly enough, this disc may not appeal to the Fishbone fans of yore. It doesn’t hit the hard edge of Fishbone’s previous work even once. Instead it sounds a bit…grown up. But expecting a band like Fishbone not to grow and change, especially after 20 years of making music, is ridiculous. This is an all around fun album, if you’re the kind of person who actually knows how to have fun without being angry. You could put this whole disc on during a backyard picnic with volleyball and beers and no one would mind. And that is the Familyhood Nextperience. And it is a beautiful thing.