With The Clash playing in the background, I gaze up at the absurdly small banner announcing the opening band, a banner with a picture of a bomb and labeled with a simple message: "DIRECT HIT! FUCK YOU"
Oh yeah, I think. I'm at a punk show.
And when Reel Big Fish shows up in New York City, they sure know which friends to bring along. The lead singer of Direct Hit! kicks things off by telling the cheering crowd, "Louder please" and then "Okay shut up now" as the music finally starts.
Despite the low turnout for the opening band, Direct Hit! riles up the audience early and often. They embody everything that punk should be: unapologetically loud and sweating, as singer/guitarist Nick Woods closes his eyes, contorts his face, and strums furiously. Go check out their song "Forced to Sleep," trust me.
Soon enough, Ballyhoo! takes the stage. If you’re trying to picture their smooth-voiced frontman, just imagine that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Matt Heafy from Trivium had an extremely handsome baby. Boasting a talented keyboardist, sick reggae beats, the surprisingly intricate guitar solos, Ballyhoo! is quite the chimera (punk, rock, metal, ska, reggae... #prunketalskaggae?) And despite their mixed results in getting the PlayStation Theater crowd engaged, I highly recommend you look them up, especially the song "Evil Penguin."
Check out the song "Evil Penguin"
Anti-Flag is next, and finally the place is packed. The band comes onstage wearing all black, an upside-down American flag hung proudly behind the drummer. They start playing, and frontman Justin Sane, sporting a menacing snarl and a tightly sculpted mohawk, shows off his James Brown-like swagger through a series of highly dynamic, rage-filled songs of protest. Bassist Chris #2 performs various jumps and high kicks that would make any karate master proud.
Near the end of their set, Justin Sane speaks frankly about the importance of combating racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds. To that end, he tells everyone in the crowd to introduce themselves to the people next to them. I shake hands with a petite Hispanic woman to my left and a tall dark-skinned guy to my right, and even though we can’t hear each other’s names, the warm eye contact with each says, "I see you. And it’s good to meet you." As the band plays one of their final songs, Justin encourages the audience to put their arms around each other and sing along. And they do, swaying side to side with the beat. To cap it all off, a couple members of the band come down into the crowd to play the final notes of the last song, with the drummer sticking around for hugs and handshakes afterward. One mohawked fan hugs him tight, thanking him for his music. "It saved my life," I hear him say. The full beauty of that moment takes a second for me to process, but... Wow. God bless punk. And God bless Anti-Flag.
At last, the moment we've all been waiting for: Reel Big Fish takes the stage. With Aaron Barrett wearing his trademark Hawaiian shirt and the rest of the band sporting leopard print jackets, bow ties, and funny sunglasses, it’s clear that these guys have invented a whole new brand of Cool. The horn section goofs around when they’re not playing, with a combination of choreographed and spontaneous body language banter intended to make the audience laugh, like Billy Kottage pretending to take a giant hit off his trombone-turned-massive-bong. The crowd loves Barrett’s jokes between songs, and when one falls a bit flat, he just shrugs and asks, "Who writes this stuff!?"
Since this is the 20th anniversary tour for the album Turn Off the Radio, RBF spends most of their time playing songs off the record, and absolutely killing it of course. But when they've played through the album, they’ve still got a few more hits left up their sleeves. During "Everyone Else Is An Asshole," I’m mere feet away from the stage, and I turn around to find a few courageous fans skanking near a swirling mass of moshers. For those of you less familiar with it, "skanking" is a type of dancing fairly unique to ska music. (Don't ask me to explain this in writing... Just Google it or something! Hah.) Anyway, I decide to join them, and as I swing my arms and kick my legs in the center of the tiny circle, my skanking virginity vanishes into thin air. Dancing usually makes me pretty uncomfortable, but for whatever reason, this just feels right.
After a quick detour into "Self Esteem" by The Offspring during "Beer," RBF tears the house down with their final song, their iconic cover of "Take On Me" by A-ha. Everyone jumps up and down in massive waves, using every last ounce of energy to enjoy the last notes of the night.
And then it’s over, right at 11 pm. I am sweaty and exhausted but content, the sure sign of a night well spent. And the following day at work, my boss almost definitely hears me humming "She Has a Girlfriend Now" from my desk. In other words, the next time Reel Big Fish or any of these bands comes to your town, drop everything and GO because if you like music, laughter, dancing, body slamming, or some combination of all four, you’re practically guaranteed to have a good time.
Be sure to also check out a full photo gallery of Reel Big Fish's set RIGHT HERE!