[23 July 2008]
The second annual edition of Less Than Jake’s Shout it Loud summer tour recently rolled through the Detroit area, bringing Goldfinger, Big D and the Kids Table, and Suburban Legends along for the ride. The 2007 tour came to the same venue with Reel Big Fish and Streetlight Manifesto in tow. Apparently the latter two acts are worth several hundred more people than Goldfinger and Big D, because this year’s show played to a house that was maybe 80% full, while last year’s concert was packed to the gills. The package did bring in a surprisingly diverse crowd, though. There were old-schoolers in their late twenties and thirties, plenty of high school kids, some very young teens, and a few folks who seemed well into their fifties, plus multiple families with very small children.
We arrived at the show just before Big D and the Kids Table played, so we missed Suburban Legends. Big D has been playing a variation on the ska-punk thing for years, but I had never really gotten into them. However, my older cousin, who remains a total punk rocker to this day, recommended their live show, telling me that they would probably be the best act of the night. So we made the effort to get there in time to see them, and it was sorely disappointing. Their set ranged from fast and punky to slithery lounge music as well as a goofy anthem that seemed to be about the Ice Capades.
The musicians in the band, from the guitar and bass to the horn section, seemed like competent players, but it was all undermined by Big D’s terrible front man David McWane. As a lead singer, he can’t sing, speaking and sort-of-shouting his way through the songs, and as a performer he has zero stage presence. You’d think that after more than a decade of relentless touring he would’ve figured out how to inject some energy into his performance. Perhaps it was because the band’s van broke down on the way to the show and they arrived just in time to play their set. They even had to use the Suburban Legends’ drums, so maybe I’m being too harsh, but I was not impressed at all.
Next up was Goldfinger, ostensibly a co-headliner on this tour. I was a gigantic fan back in the ‘90s, and I still think their first three albums are some of the better punk to come out of that decade. But since 2000’s Stomping Ground, the band has had a host of missteps, resulting in a pair of terrible albums. First, lead singer/songwriter John Feldmann became a militant vegan and decided the rest of the world needed to hear about it on the preachy Open Your Eyes. Then Feldmann spent years producing albums for a host of mediocre emo-punk bands, which led to the poorly-written and shamelessly-poppy Disconnection Notice. It was a blatant attempt at getting mainstream rock and pop radio airplay, and it was predictably ignored. The band has since retreated to indie label SideOneDummy and attempted to regain some credibility with this year’s Hello Destiny, but you wouldn’t have known it from their live set. Sticking largely to material from those first three albums, the band put on a solid show that felt more like a nostalgia trip than an active, working group.
At least Feldmann, in contrast to Big D’s McWane, knows how to work a crowd. The consummate front man, he was all over the stage, standing on monitors and exhorting the audience to sing along with Goldfinger classics like “Counting the Days” and “Here in Your Bedroom”. He invited anyone in the crowd who had seen the band play before to join them onstage to sing along with “Mabel”, an ultra-catchy classic from their first album. What looked like 150 people eagerly complied, bouncing around and looking overjoyed to actually be up on the stage. Surprisingly, they all politely filed back off at the end of the song. The band also brought along a pair of saxophone players with them to play on a handful of tunes. And despite their youthful looks (they could have been nephews or children of some of the band members or crew) they did a very good job, particularly on “Superman”, possibly the band’s best song. The couple of songs the band played from the Open Your Eyes album got noticeably less crowd reaction, and they stayed away from Disconnection Notice entirely. It was telling, though, that they only played a single song (“Get Up”) from their new album. For a group that was supposed to be a co-headliner touring in support of a new release, Goldfinger’s set sounded suspiciously like a band that knows its best days are behind them.
Less Than Jake, on the other hand, opened their set with “Does the Lion City Still Roar?” from the brand new GNV FLA album. They went on to play a wide-ranging, slightly goofy show that was full of highlights. From the start, though, something seemed slightly off with the group. The band’s saxophone player, JR, was conspicuously absent and replaced by Suburban Legends trumpet player Luis Beza. Beza quickly traded off his spot to Matt, one of the saxophone players from Goldfinger, for the next two songs (the LTJ classic “Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts” and the laid-back “The Science of Selling Yourself Short”). Lead singer/guitarist Chris Demakes then explained that JR was attending his grandmother’s funeral and that they were grateful for the help from the other bands’ horn players. Beza and Matt continued to switch back and forth (and fill in ably) throughout the set, and there were a few songs where the band just played as a foursome, with trombonist Buddy as the only horn. Early in the show Demakes apparently made a disparaging remark about Toledo, Ohio, offending an audience member from Toledo in the process. A few songs later, he invited the guy onstage, apologized to him, gave him a beer, and let him watch the rest of the set from the side of the stage.
In keeping with the color scheme of their new album, the band’s light show was filled with pastel shades of lavender, sea green, and pink. It made for a decidedly different onstage appearance from the typical rock show. The band played fan-favorite “Look What Happened” to a massive audience sing-along that filled the whole theatre and was impressively on key. “Al’s War”, played as a special request, did not fare so well, as Demakes admitted that they hadn’t rehearsed it at all. It was easy to tell as the song suffered during its multiple slow-to-fast transitions. The wacky asides continued as the show went along, with Demakes briefly discussing his childhood growing up in Michigan and mentioning that he had 21 family members in attendance. He also brought up an elderly couple to dance while the band played “Sugar in Your Gas Tank”. Despite his over-the-top exhortations to “dirty dance” and “get really nasty,” the couple seemed to be having a really good time. Demakes finally went too far when he brought a member of the security staff up and offered him a beer. The guy politely declined because he was on the job and, despite Demakes’ pleading and cajoling, he never did take the beer. At this point Demakes became insulting, which caused bassist Roger Manganelli to defend the poor security guard and gave him permission to “Kick (Demakes’) ass after the show.”
Despite the multiple instances of chatter, Less Than Jake knows that the focus of their shows is the music, and they delivered a typically high-energy, dynamic set. Regardless of whether they’re playing the speedy “Last One Out of Liberty City” and “All My Best Friends are Metalheads” or the more subdued “Krazy Glue”, they always seem to be putting forth maximum effort. It’s this effort and energy level that set them apart from many of their now-defunct mid-‘90s peers, and a big part of the reason why they continue to outshine their fellow headliners and opening acts. They finished with the one-two encore punch of “Gainesville Rock City” and “Plastic Cup Politics”, before concluding with more chatter. This time, however, it was a heartfelt thank you to the audience.