Fishbone are the band I give credit for loosening up my music taste in my early teens. Though rooted in ska and reggae, their music incorporates elements of funk, punk-rock, soul, metal and other styles, opening up my ears to appreciate a wide variety of genres.
Certainly, I’m not the only person who’s been influenced by the group. Despite never fully breaking from cult status into mainstream recognition, Fishbone are widely heralded in the music industry, being acclaimed by acts as diverse as George Clinton, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice-T, Gwen Stefani, Prince and numerous others. Their failure to achieve fame at the same level as their peers and admirers, can be attributed to both the band’s turbulent history of record label droppings and leaving members, as well as the fickle and segregating nature of the music industry. A band comprised of all black members which plays both ‘white’ and ‘black’ music is considered a tough sell. These difficulties were recently the subject of a documentary feature which has been circulating festivals but not yet given a wide release.
The band drew a pretty eclectic crowd, ranging from skinheads (the reggae appreciators, not the right wing thugs) to punks to middle aged couples – appropriate considering the diverse nature of the group. The opening act, Random Hand, couldn’t make it due to traffic, so the music started with Toupe, who were enjoyable enough with their humourous Les Claypool style slapping bass punk funk.
Afterwards as the stage hands were setting up for Fishbone, a theremin was brought onstage. A theremin is an unusual electronic instrument that’s sound is altered without being physically touched. It is best known for its use in horror movie soundtracks, though in this instance it was to be played by Fishbone‘s front man Angelo Moore. One of the band’s roadies, a friendly Hispanic guy who stank of high potency marijuana, told me that the theremin was subject to much division amongst the group and that one former member left because he couldn’t stand the sound it made. Nonetheless, it was being used tonight because the keyboard player, Dre Gibson, had been missing for a few days. He also told me that aside from Angelo, only two other members of the band’s original six-piece were there tonight, the bassist Norwood Fisher and trumpet/vocalist ‘Dirty‘ Walt. Though the roadie had apparently been working with them since 1991, he came across as just as enthusiastic about this gig as the countless ones he must have witnessed.
Their set opened with some humorous, mythical poetry from Angelo in his ‘Dr. Madd Vibe’ persona accompanied by drums and theremin. The tension was set perfectly for the rest of the members to come on stage and launch into some skanking reggae. Even though as their opening number, the high intensity levels of energy and craziness hadn’t started yet, all my concerns of the band not living up to their expectations were demolished instantly. Angelo’s energy and charisma at engaging a crowd is made more impressive considering that he’s nearly 50. Even while manically moving across a small stage and switching different sized saxophones, he never tripped or made any noticeable mistakes. Some may find him overly manic, but nonetheless compelling, like a hybrid of Jim Carrey and Cab Calloway. His singing voice is no slouch either. The rest of the band just oozed confidence in being able to switch from different styles easily with most of the material played was more light hearted ska and funk infused songs as opposed to their more heavy aggressive tunes, though there was some occasional blistering guitar shredding.
Famed Fishbone hi jinks really began into their Everyday Sunshine when Angelo leaped off the stage and starting moshing with the crowd, whilst still singing into a wired microphone. During this, one young guy managed to get Angelo into a headlock. When the song finished, he called out ‘where’s the dude that put me in a headlock?’ and when the person crept back into view Angelo ran out towards him. At this point most of the audience were expecting Angelo to punch the guy out, but instead he hugged him. Without mentioning any names, I doubt that many other rock singers would have let an audience member off after they had inflicted pain on them, even non-aggressively, as it was in this instance.
The whole experience was exhausting, not just on the audience’s part but Angelo was quite literally flooding with sweat by the end of the night. Even so, it was a great deal of fun and an exciting live performance. It struck me that this is a band so dedicated to their music, and anyone there to witness it, that regardless of venue or crowd size they give it their all in making every performance worthwhile.