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

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Concert review - Reel Big Fish with Suburban Legends, Mighty Mongo, and The Maxies

17 January 2013 (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)

Aside from getting pelted with somebody's half-full mixed drink while taking pictures of Reel Big Fish, I've got little to complain about. Well, I could also mention the traffic between Ft. Collins and Denver. It took longer than expected to get down to the Gothic and we arrived shortly after the Maxies came on stage. This means we missed the secret opening act: Reel Big Fish drummer Ryland Steen performed a solo set to promote his new album, This Magnificent. I wish I had caught it; sampling the album on iTunes, it would have been interesting to hear how he translated the driving rock sound into solo guitar arrangements.

But traffic is a constant pain and rowdy crowds are a fixture at hyped up ska-fests, so let's dive right into the bands.

024 Maxies
The first thing you notice about The Maxies is how well the band leader moves for a fat guy. Actually, that not true; the first thing you notice is that the band are all sporting crazy masks and distinctive red and white costumes. Aside from the kitschy outfits, the band also hid themselves behind a family of pseudonyms: Maximum Maxie, Android Maxie, etc. Oh, yeah, they also had a polar bear on stage and claimed to be the biggest band in Greenland.

007 Maxies
It's all a glorious gimmick, but the band committed completely to the conceit. Lead singer Maximum Maxie was a frontman determined to affront. Like a super-hero (villain?) Don Rickles, he abused the audience with a sneer and a wink. He taunted the crowd, singling out people to mock and making one outrageous statement after another. This only let up when he turned his insults to the other bands playing with them on the tour. Meanwhile, the rest of the group clowned around, capering around the stage like deranged mimes. That barely-reined comedic chaos drove the set and spurred the whole venue to party.

020 Maxies
The group's stage work fit well with the smart ass punk attitude permeating the songs. Each tune was a power punk explosion of tight chops, catchy riffs, and irreverent lyrics. In deference to the skankers, the band threw down a chank beat now and again, but neither that nor their masks could disguise their punk roots. It was a high energy set from a well-practiced group and cheap shot one-liners added just as much character as the costumes. Their own press says it best, "More PUNK than ROCK. More ROCK than PUNK!"

069 Mighty Mongo
When a band kicks off their set at a ska show with the heavy reverb of Dick Dale's "Miserlou" AND a member is playing a wicked-ass keytar, you know you're in the throes of cognitive dissonance. After the Maxies' in-your-face performance, Mighty Mongo initially seemed a bit restrained. But that impression faded as they quickly gave us a taste of their stage personas and made it clear just how much fun they were having. Bass player Alex Card in particular had an outsize personality, moving from rock god pose to self-consciously Caucasian rapper without a pause. Those shifts were scripted into the setlist, but, like a good actor, Card owned the role at any given time, laughing his way through a hip-hop call and response ("When I say 'hot', you say 'dog'!) or earnestly singing an '80s style rocker.

074 Mighty Mongo
Fellow singer Lindsay Vitola balanced him out with an exuberantly wholesome performance. She had a strong voice and a warm stage presence. Completely at home in front of the crowd, she danced and bounced along with joyful abandon, but locked right into the mic to nail her part. The early songs in the set emphasized her keytar work but even more would have been welcome. Instead, she focused on her singing. She and Card had worked up some great vocal arrangements, trading verses then harmonizing on the choruses.

065 Mighty Mongo
Mighty Mongo's setlist skipped across a stream of genres, favoring alternative rock and '90s pop, but they leveraged enough ska to satisfy the crowd. Of course, it didn't hurt when they brought in Chris Lucca from Suburban Legends for a couple of tunes including a solid rendition of "Never There" by Cake. Tapping into such a versatile sound, the band had the crowd moving from start to finish.

145 Suburban Legends
The sound check teased us when bass player Brad Polidori riffed through a taste of Rush's "Limelight". That served as fair notice that the band would pepper their set with a host of interesting covers. Their show actually opened with the hard punching "High Fives" (Rump Shaker, 2003). A perfect blend of catchy pop, driving beat, and ska breakdowns, this song jump started the audience. The music was super high energy enough but Suburban Legends demonstrated the value of their experience playing at Disneyland and crafted every moment to wring out maximum entertainment. Whether it was Vincent Walker charming the crowd, the tight stage choreography keeping everything in motion, or the big reveal of their trademarked backdrop, the band never wasted an ounce of opportunity to create a big splash impression.

112 Suburban Legends
While Walker and the horn players performed the most intricate stage moves, all of the band had their parts.  Walker was an incredibly dynamic frontman, working the edge of the stage, and projecting theatrical facial expressions that played all the way to the back of the room. In fact, it's clear that they're well prepared for much larger venues than the Gothic, but that didn't dampen their enthusiasm.

121 Suburban Legends
Their Disney background bubbled to the surface as they ran through several company classics, from turning "Duck Tales" into a rousing party anthem to channeling the spunky arrogance of "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" from The Lion King. Walker even traded roles with guitarist Brian Klemm so Klemm could take "Kiss The Girl" (The Little Mermaid) over the top. Klemm topped himself, though, with a spot on Neil Diamond impression for "Sweet Caroline". Several of the Disney tracks are available on the band's recent EP, Dreams Aren't Real But These Songs Are.

141 Suburban Legends
The non-stop extravaganza stage presence is great, but it plays so large that it could make Suburban Legend as mockable as the latest boy band. Fortunately, they understood that and remembered to give the occasional wink that acknowledged the campiness, balancing the sincerity with satire. And it helps that they weren't just a set of dance moves and posturing; their musicianship was top notch. The arrangements could be infectiously poppy, but they knew how to bring in a rocking solo riff or nail a horn blare in tight formation to give the music the right edge. This made them a fine match up for the headliners.

195 Reel Big Fish
Last year, Reel Big Fish landed high up in my list of favorite shows for the year, largely based on their fun, party atmosphere, great songs, and frontman Aaron Barrett's wildcard humor. They tore up the Gothic during their set, inciting the mosh pit to reach for the edges of the room and the tunes were as droll and sarcastic as ever. Barrett seemed in even better form than last year's show. But with trombonist Dan Regan retiring from touring, the act lost some of the stage repartee magic that Regan helped create. Saxophonist Matt Appleton, proud beneath his mohawk, did his best to contribute to the mood, but I missed the good-natured sniping that Barrett and Regan had developed.

186 Reel Big Fish
That said, the band still put on a hot show that rocked their fans. After the precise choreography of Suburban Legends, Reel Big Fish seemed fairly loose and relaxed, but Barrett and the band made more karate kicks than you'd have seen in an Elvis show. Otherwise, Barrett was content to spin across the stage while the horns coordinated some of their movements. But while the stage blocking was left to chance, the music was locked down into the groove. Lead guitar would take the dive and fall just as the horns burst in to clamor for attention. The bass and drums insistently propelled the songs with well-oiled synchronization.

194 Reel Big Fish
The set list favored the group's early material, leading off with "Everything Sucks" and later hitting crowd favorites like "I Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriend" and "Beer". Dropping the banter, Reel Big Fish flew through the songs, juxtaposing old with the new: "I Dare You To Break My Heart"  led to "Good Thing" before the band transitioned back up the timeline to "Your Guts (I Hate Them)". One of the funniest moments came in the set up for "Sell Out". They launched into a deadpan ska cover of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe". After nailing the chorus, Barrett said, "Yes, we're going to play the whole song." Then they challenged the men in the audience to start the second verse, but immediately detuned into chaotic discord before rebooting into "Sell Out".

210 Reel Big Fish
Lindsay Vitola from Mighty Mongo joined the band for a pair of their classic male/female duets, "I Know You Too Well To Like You Anymore" and "She Has a Girlfriend Now". Vitola brought her own character to the parts, acting out and holding her own with Barrett. Their chemistry was perfect.

214 Reel Big Fish
The encore skipped the multi-genre romp of "S.R." that they often perform in favor of "Thank You For Not Moshing", but they still closed with their iconic cover of A-ha's "Take On Me", which I think I've finally heard more often than the original. Gladly.

More photos on my Flickr.

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