The trip to this gig framed the entire experience rather nicely. Traveling from York to Leeds by myself, I made a friend on the train who was also going to see Reel Big Fish. Once we reached the station, she invited me to hang out with her and her friends at the gig. Unfortunately there was no space for me in their car , and so I ended up walking to the venue in the rain. When I got there, there had been some mix-up with my tickets at the box office and for a while it looked like I wouldn’t get in at all.
So to recap: on the way to see a show I make and then immediately lose a friend, have to walk to the gig in the rain, and then I almost don’t get it. It would almost have been worth it, just for the experience of actually BEING a character in a ska-punk song.
Opening band Zebrahead were not quite in the same vein as the two main acts – charming pop punk in the vein of (but significantly better than) All Time Low, rather than the more ska sound of Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish. The lineup of drums, bass, guitar, and two vocalists – already big for pop punk – also featured a bartender, who stood behind a booze-laden table and served drinks to the band between songs, not contributing musically except for some out-of-tune backing vocals. Unsurprisingly, most of their songs were about drinking and partying. This sets the scene for the kind of silly, frat-boy antics the band revelled in; most notably, the two appearances of a pair of caricature Germans, complete with lederhosen, who were brought out on stage to chug beers while the band mocked them. I’m not sure how to process that.
That last paragraph makes me feel dirty because I wrote “All Time Low”. Ugh.
My chief criticism of Zebrahead would be their constant calls for the band to jump, or dance, or start a circle pit. All bands do this but Zebrahead were the worst I’ve ever encountered, seemingly saying it between every song. The crowd will dance if they’re having fun, not just because the bands asks them! I yearn for the day that frontmen realise this.
A brief guest appearance from the Reel Big Fish horn section was a nice way to close their set, and left the crowd warmed up for Less Than Jake. After their set, several of Zebrahead’s members were on and off stage, doing their own roadie work – a touch of humility that’s always nice to see in a band.
Less Than Jake took to the stage to a recording of The Who’s Baba O’Reilly, which quickly turned into a fast-paced ska cover. They powered through three more songs with no preamble and no loss of energy. Overall, they interacted with the crowd more than Zebrahead; calling a guy up onto stage because he had a cool mohawk, getting any audience members called Liam and Emma on stage to drink beer with them, singling out people who were texting rather than watching the show, and trying to cheer up bored security guards. The banter between the band members was also entertaining if a little juvenile. They played a perfect mix of tracks from their new album See the Light and classic material, ending particularly strongly with the anthem in honour of their hometown in Florida, Gainesville Rock City.
It’s debatable which of the two main acts should have had precedence – both Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake are veterans of the American ska-punk scene, with over twenty years’ worth of experience to their names. In any case, Reel Big Fish were headliners for this show, and I pushed my way to the front to get the best possible experience, ending up two people away from the barrier, right in front of centre stage.
Again the audience were treated to a perfectly-chosen set, despite vocalist Aaron Barrett’s ominous warning of “We’re gonna say the four worst words any band can say to a crowd: Here’s a new song”. All the new material proved to be classic Reel Big Fish however; the combination of poppy, upbeat riffs, expertly arranged horn sections and utterly depressing lyrics that have made them so popular for over two decades. The Jamaican origins of ska are also much clearer in Reel Big Fish than any American ska band I’ve heard since Sublime.
Despite not exchanging as much banter with the crowd as Less Than Jake, they had more energy on stage and the audience responded in kind, never losing their enthusiasm or easing back on the dancing, and I have the sore ribs to prove it. It’s the sad paradox of packed ska gigs that the parts of the crowd with the most energy are also the regions where there’s not enough to room to perform the iconic dance of the genre, the skank. The best moment of crowd interaction in the entire gig was their performance of S.R. in several different genres, separated by Aaron’s instructions for specific accompanying dances: “For this next song, which is the SAME song, I want you to jump/shake your booty/headbang/square-dance.”
They followed this with their classic Beer, maybe the best example of their mixture of downbeat words and upbeat music, and a fan favourite. Thinking this was the end, once the song was over I made my way to the back of the crowd, only for them to launch into the actual final song, their justly famous cover of A-ha’s Take on Me. You don’t realise how badly that song is missing a ska horn section until you hear this cover version. Being a little further back in the crowd, I witnessed several brave or foolhardy souls attempt to build a human pyramid – dead in the centre of the mosh pit! – and finally had enough space to skank all through this blistering final performance of what was an excellent gig.