Does anyone remember that week when ska was cool? Ska is often dismissed as a phase in mainstream music that came and went years ago. This was a relief to many longtime ska fans who felt the genre had become too commercial and watered down by popular bands such as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
Many thought pop-ska bands disappeared from the scene entirely, but apparently they were wrong. It looks like someone is still listening. Saturday Reel Big Fish brought New Jersey bands Midtown and Catch-22 to D.C. to play a sold-out show at the 9:30 Club.
Despite the band’s reputation as the king of poppy 90’s ska-punk, Reel Big Fish played a live show that was mediocre and void of any outstanding moments. This fact escaped the audience, which seemed to be thrilled by the sudden realization that they were out past their bedtimes.
Reel Big Fish has fallen from popular fame and ostracized on the underground ska scene, making one wonder what audience still goes to see this band. The answer: 12-year-old girls, and plenty of them. A number of college students, undoubtedly present for the purpose of premature nostalgia, stood many inches above a sea of middle school kids.
As Reel Big Fish took the stage amidst a fury of high-pitch wails, I found myself anticipating the emergence of at least one Backstreet Boy. The band played a variety of tunes from each of its two albums. The crowd was whipped into sing-along frenzy as singer Aaron Barrett led them in songs like She has a Girlfriend Now and Somebody Hates Me. The songs themselves inspired even the begrudging fans to acknowledge the band’s musical talent. But band members lacked a serious energy in their performance and seemed almost smug on stage.
Reel Big fish busted out of obscurity in 1997 with the ironically named top-20 hit Sell Out. By trumpeting anti-commercial lyrics and employing crazy ska antics and sound, the band was able to become, arguably, one of the most popular ska bands of the ’90s. This did not reflect in the band’s performance Saturday. Although there were some high points at the Reel Big Fish show, the band just stood around for the most part.
A cover of Take on Me was lightly amusing and the group’s version of Operation Ivy’s Unity was admittedly quite excellent. The crowd seemed to miss the anti-moshing sentiments expressed in Thanks For Not Moshing and danced explosively against one another under the disapproving eyes of the band. Predictably, the band ended the show with its hit, Sell-Out.
It could certainly be said that openers Catch-22 and Midtown had a leg up on Reel Big Fish in the energy race. Midtown, of Drive-thru Records, gave a driving performance despite a general expression of apathy from the unmoving crowd. The kids may have been able to deny Midtown’s slow punk style, but they could not stay still for Catch-22. Catch-22, currently on Victory Records, really stole the show. The band offered raw energy and presence on stage and seemed to connect with the crowd more easily than Midtown. Playing the bulk of its set from audience requests, Catch-22 did its job warming up the crowd.
Before the show even started it was already riddled with disaster. Reel Big Fish’s Barrett was playing on an injured foot and opener Midtown was forced to play on borrowed equipment because of an equipment van accident.
Perhaps these mishaps had something to do with Reel Big Fish’s lack of inspiration on stage. In the past Reel Big Fish have been known for putting their all into live shows. The legendary innovation and sense of fun just wasn’t there at this show, and the band ended up giving a lot less to the crowd then the crowd gave back.