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Reel Big Fish & Less Than Jake, O2 Ritz Manchester, 14/11/18

Two of the biggest names in ska punk stopped off in Manchester on their latest co-headlining tour to put on one of the craziest shows our editor, R.A. Hagan, has ever been to. Seriously.

Ska punk is a genre that is often dismissed by critics and music listeners alike, but fucking hell, I have seldom seen bands look like they’re having even half as much fun playing live than ska punk bands do. If, like me, you’re a fan of the brass-boasting brand of ska-infused pop punk bands like Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake have been mastering for over 25 years, you simply need to catch one of their live shows.

Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake sharing the stage is enough as it is, but for this particular trip across the pond they have brought along their friends in Suburban Legends and Zebrahead to start off the night with a bang.

Suburban Legends opened the show. Lead singer Vincent Walker welcomed us to “the greatest tour on earth”. They played a fairly short, but memorable set that included synchronised dancing and a cover of ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ from ‘The Lion King’. The crowd were suitably warmed up, largely indicated by a very loud singalong to The Offspring’s ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’ which was played during the intermission. Zebrahead took to the stage, bringing with them three men dressed as beer bottles who essentially danced around on stage drinking beer for the entirety of their set. Co-lead vocalist Ali Tabatabaee’s voice was noticeably strained, which if his peformance that night was anything to go by, isn’t too surprising. An impassioned performance from Zebrahead, whose set was largely made up of older, more well-known material, worked the crowd into a frenzy. Tabatabaee was commanding circle pits and the sold-out audience delivered. During their set, Zebrahead had a fan, who I believe was introduced as Nora, take part in an on-stage drinking contest with one of the men dressed as a beer bottle. Various references were made to how the set was essentially a party and it would be hard to disagree. It wasn’t the best party we’ve seen at the Ritz this year, but it was fun nonetheless.

The time had come, Reel Big Fish’s drummer Edward Larsen (who looks suspiciously like Suburban Legends drummer… maybe they’re twins?!) made his way to the stage and began playing the opening beat to their incredible rendition of 80’s classic ‘Take On Me’. The rest of the band soon followed but, in a moment I couldn’t tell was skit or reality, frontman Aaron Barrett’s guitar didn’t work. “We’ll be right back!”, declared Barrett, before every member sans Larsen made their way off stage. A few seconds passed and Larsen began the beat again, Reel Big Fish made their way back on stage and… Barrett’s guitar malfunctioned again. “We’ll be right back!”, declares Barrett again, before every member sans Larsen made their way off stage. Third times the charm however and the show finally begins. A lovely and memorable part of this set was when Reel Big Fish dusted off ‘The Kids Don’t Like It’ in honour of the 20th anniversary of fan favourite album ‘Why Do They Rock So Hard?’. The band essentially took us on a voyage through their discography, with classics, rarities, covers and new material making appearances, which helped make this set feel particularly special. Barrett repeatedly teased the crowd throughout the night, announcing that “We’re gonna play a new song… later on in the set” on an every-other-song basis, which was hilarious. The new song, the band’s latest single ‘You Can’t Have All of Me’ went down incredibly well live and received a very warm reception from the packed out room. Reel Big Fish are known for their on-stage banter and comedy and this show was certainly no different. Barrett attempted to cover Spin Doctor’s ‘Two Princes’ at the crowd’s insistence despite only knowing one verse, which he hilariously strung out for about two minutes. The crowd were going crazy for Reel Big Fish throughout the entirety of the set, which is nothing unexpected considering how warmly they’re received every time they venture to the U.K. The band seemingly closed with their biggest hit ‘Sell Out’, before coming back out for a rollocking performance of fan favourite ‘Beer’, which was fantastic. Usually during ‘Beer’, Reel Big Fish insert a section of The Offspring’s ‘Self Esteem’, but they didn’t this time. I can’t help but suspect this was because of the technical issues/skit at the start of the show, and it was a little disappointing not to hear something that had become a staple of a Reel Big Fish live show. This did turn out to be the only problem in an otherwise stellar show, so it’s not all bad. By the way, we have an interview with Reel Big Fish’s Matt ‘Saxl Rose’ Appleton and Billy Kottage coming very soon, so stay tuned!

Less Than Jake closed the show with a massively entertaining set. The audience were still going hell for leather even after two hours, which in itself is a testament to just how beloved all the bands involved in the night’s show are. Less Than Jake’s set consisted primarily of songs from their discography from 1998–2000. There was the occasional more recent song dotted here and there, but co-frontman Chris DeMakes told the audience early into the set that the band wanted to play their older favourites that night because they love Manchester and wanted to give them something special. The on-stage banter between frontmen DeMakes and Roger Lima was fantastic and occasionally heartwarming; you can tell that there’s a genuine camaraderie within the band. During the show, the band had a member of their team hand out free cans of beer to the front rows of the audience because they wanted everybody to have a good time. Towards the middle of the set Lima brought an audience member, who he said had got in touch with him on Twitter, on stage and let her share his microphone during the final chorus of the song ‘Look What Happened’ which was just bloody lovely to witness. Less Than Jake’s set was fun all the way through and never felt boring or that it was going on longer than it should. There were minor sound issues occasionally, with Lima’s sometimes inaudible at the back of the room where I was standing. Other than that, though, it’s hard to say anything else bad about the show. Less Than Jake closed the show with arguably their biggest hit, ‘All My Best Friends Are Metalheads’, for which they brought out Reel Big Fish’s brass section of Saxl Rose, Johnny Christmas and Billy Kottage. Brass-tacular.

It’s crazy how consistently good Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake are live, considering not only how long they’ve been going, but their age (DeMakes and Lima are 45 whilst Barrett is 44). I think there’s something to this ska punk business, you know. It’s obviously good for the soul.

This particular tour just finished up a couple of days ago, but do make sure to go see either band the next time they’re in the U.K.! It’s certainly something you won’t regret.

Reel Big Fish’s upcoming studio album ‘Life Sucks, Let’s Dance’ is due out on the 21st of December. Check out the latest single below, and keep an eye out for our interview with the band coming very soon!

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Music publication based in Manchester

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R.A. Hagan

R.A. Hagan

Music writer, ‘comedian’ and seasoned gastronaut. I use my initials because my actual name’s boring.

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