(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Concert review - Reel Big Fish with Pilfers and DanP

12 January 2013 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

My son joined me for this show. We waited in the freezing line outside the Aggie so we could get a good vantage point. Despite the bitter cold outside, the dancing crowd kept it cozy warm inside once the show began. All three bands were on the national tour and that seems to have drawn a good sized crowd, even for the opening acts.

In band mode, Dan Potthast plays with ska punkers MU330 as well as Dan P and the Bricks. On this tour, though, it was just him and his guitar. As a solo act, his set was heavy on acoustic punk and light on chank & skank. This could have set him up for a tough set, but he managed to win over the crowd with a mix of boyish charm, high energy, and humor.

His 20 minute set moved along quickly, with short, mostly funny songs. Between the single joke tunes and self-deprecating stage patter, it felt like a cross between an open mike night and a standup routine. For example, the first verse of "KKK Highway" (from MU330's Ultra Panic") set up the punchline second verse:
I guess they dress up in sheets and they pick up the trash
They should know it when they see it
They get a good look every day in the mirror 
Sure, targeting racists and homophobes (as in "Don't Say Gay") were easy crowd-pleasers here in Ft. Collins, but his earnest attitude and geek style just clicked. In many ways, Potthast was the opposite of Reel Big Fish's Aaron Barrett: cheery, sincere, and optimistic.

If you know your ska history, you're familiar with the Jamaican first wave, the 2 Tone second wave, and the punk/alt-rock third wave. Fans and critics argue about fourth wave ska, debating whether it exists or what the sonic definition will be. Pilfers' set was a strong argument that they're at that leading edge. Starting with a punk/ska-core foundation, they extended the sound with hip hop attitude and stage style as well as a strong element of headbanging metal. 

Front man Coolie Ranx was a monster. He owned the stage with an animal charisma, trading heavily on hip hop stagecraft. He stalked the stage like a lion, goading the band one moment, then turning to confront the crowd. He taught us our cues to participate: "Elevation!" to pogo dance or "Wipers!" for arm waving. This engagement took the easy going party of the first set and channeled it into a visceral tribal feel, uniting the audience.

In another page from the hip hop manual, touring trombonist Billy Kottage tag-teamed Ranx, acting as hype man. Their twin delivery, with Kottage emphasizing Ranx' lines, kicked up the energy and whipsawed the stage flow.

They started off with an older track, "Chawalaleng". The guitar started too low in the mix, but the bass heavy groove gave the song momentum. While the dark grind of the melody snaked around, Ranx tossed out comments with a speedy toasting rhythm. Kottage's trombone added the perfect fills. The audience joined with the chanted chorus. They followed up with a more classic ska jam to chill the mood, then Ranx started working the crowd.

He walked us through our parts for "Yakuza", explaining our lines and cues. Then band kicked into the punk thrash of the tune. Along the way, Nick Bacon's guitar shred led the song back and forth between punk and metal, setting the mood for the following songs. The ska beat would slide in and out depending on how hard the band pushed it, but Ranx' coiled tension was a constant challenge, urging us on.

Reel Big Fish did their best to assure that nothing has changed since their heyday in the late '90s. Aaron Barrett's sly sarcasm, the whip-smart arrangements, great musical chops, and an irreverent attitude -- all the standard ingredients of a Reel Big Fish show were there. The setlist included a lot of songs from last year's Candy Coated Fury (review here), which meshed perfectly with the classic older material. Everybody at the show must already have the new album because they happily sang along when the band opened with "Everyone Else is an Asshole". In fact, as dedicated fans, the crowd joined in on every song.

The band fed off that energy and delivered a fantastic performance. Barrett, trombone player Dan Regan, and Matt Appleton on sax provided most of the patter and direct interaction, but the whole band was disciplined, zipping from song to song. It's paradoxical, a kind of organized anarchy. They maintained a tight sound that followed the studio arrangements, but the stage show felt very loose. The clowning was fairly choreographed, but like the Three Stooges, Reel Big Fish had great comedic timing and a dedication to getting the laughs.

Much of the humor was already there in the songs. "I Know You Too Well To Like You Anymore", "She Has a Girlfriend Now", "Your Guts (I Hate 'em)": the band plowed through the songs with venomous joy and the occasional snarky aside. Even on a more sincere cut, like the upbeat "Good Thing", Barrett acknowledged, "That song was the nicest song I ever wrote...I was in a good mood one time. For a minute and I wrote a song. Anyway, here's another mean song."

Regan and Barrett in particular had great chemistry here. On "Where Have You Been", Barrett danced around with his guitar during the break while Regan worked Barrett's wah-wah pedal. Near the end, the song shifted into a head cutting session between the guitar and the trombone. After Barrett shredded out a wicked solo, Regan responded with a trombone version of "The Imperial Death March" from Star Wars to win the contest.

They also had fun with a bait-and-switch set up. They announced that the next tune would be about their favorite beverage. They launched into "Tequila" , with Barrett vocally covering the bridge horn line before giving it up. Then they tried "Red Red Wine" and "Margaritaville" before settling into "Beer" from Turn the Radio Off.

The funniest moment came during the encore. Their Madness-inspired ska jam "Don't Stop Skankin'" morphed into "S.R.", an early track decrying the break up of fellow ska band Suburban Rhythm. When the song wrapped up, they asked everybody to stop skankin', "Just for a minute. Take it easy...but don't stop circle spinning." Then they immediately whipped through "S.R." again, this time as a punk song. They used similar segues to shift into disco, country, and death metal. They finished with, "Don't stop clapping." They closed out the encore with a speedy, ironic cover of A-ha's "Take on Me".

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