It was with a degree of nostalgia that I stepped into the depths of Southampton University’s Old Refectory, trapped on all sides by an eclectic mixture of excitable younger teens and much older, die-hard fans. Having watched the Fish play in London at least three or four times when I was around the age of sixteen, it felt a little surreal to be back again at twenty-one. Of course, around that time, their latest album had been Monkey’s For Nothin’ And The Chimps for Free (2007). They have since released an impressive number of albums: A live album, a ‘best of’, a covers album, and, finally, their latest: Candy Coated Fury (2012). Though the band’s line-up has gone through several change-overs, lead singer Aaron Barrett now being the only founding member left, alongside the 2011 exit of talented backing singer and trumpeteer Scott Klopfenstein, the familiar faces of ‘Johnny Christmas’, Dan Regan and Ryland ‘The Rabbit’ Steen brought me rushing right back to my obsessive ska-phase of 2008.
Though we arrived a little after the beginning of the support act, The Magnus Puto surpassed expectations the minute we had entered the hall. The Bristol-based six-piece caught our attention immediately with their reggae/ska baselines, riffs reminiscent of early Arctic Monkeys, and an innovative mix of rap-and-melodic vocal shared between the two frontmen, Andrew Frenchwindow and Pat Fallon. Their performance was rife with energy, and succeeded in getting the building crowd going ready for the Americans to take the lead. Highlights included ‘Gettin’ Trouble’ and ‘Another Way’, and, personally, I am already itching for them to release some new material beyond their initial EP.
Suburban Legends led with a very different, though no less enjoyable attitude. Their performance, if not endlessly animated, was far more sleek, polished and practiced, with the addition of wondrously dated choreography that had the two trumpeteers sliding up and down stage, as well as some (literal) trumpet battles. Frontman Vincent Walker, joined in too at times, when he wasn’t pacing the stage or leering into the crowd, yelling typical shout-y ska vocals over the happy-go-lucky trumpets and upbeat ska riffs. Taking ska past its roots and dipping in and out of disco and funk brought a new edge to the band, though at points they just couldn’t keep the energy going, and it was difficult to work out whether one song had finished or they were playing another, too-similar, track. Crowd-pleasers included ‘Bright Spring Morning’ and a charming cover of The Lion King’s ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.’
By the time the Fish came onstage, the crowd had had their fill of booze and were definitely at their drunkest, with the rise of pre-pubescent mosh pits and spilt drinks. But Reel Big Fish are a band who have always been aware of their audience, and thus played the drunken mob like a pack of cards. They dealt the first blow with ‘Everyone Else is an Asshole’, arguably the best-known track from their new album, and followed up with a couple of oldies, ‘Trendy’ and ‘Everything Sucks’, reeling out ska riffs and trumpet melodies with the same insatiable enthusiasm that they had when playing London’s Astoria in 2008. Aaron wore the same trade-mark blazer, the same sunglasses, the same quiff, and barked out jokes about so-called ex-girlfriends like there was no tomorrow. ‘Sell Out’, ‘Good Thing’ and the classic ‘Beer’ finished the set off with a bang, enraging the crowd who were already yelling for their heyday triumph, ‘Take On Me’, a punchy re-imagining of Aha’s classic that shot them to fame in 2002. They, of course, received this, preceded by the unforgettable Toots and the Maytals’ ‘Monkey Man’, and the catchy trumpeting of ‘241’.
Altogether the show was a fantastic one, and though I am well out of my sixteen-year-old obsession, it was still a joy to re-live my teenagerhood in magnificent technicolour and deafening noise. Though Reel Big Fish are not known for their introspective, meaningful and pretentious lyrics, nor innovative new sounds, they are masters at keeping the old ska genre alive, and never fail to entertain, which explains why, even five years later, they are still drawing huge crowds and maintain an endlessly faithful fanbase.