Way back in high school, Fishbone‘s self-titled debut EP was the first cassette I ever bought. When I went away to college at UCLA, I got to see the band all the time: opening for the Chili Peppers at CSULB’s cafeteria, playing the massive Scream club at the Park Plaza Hotel, headlining an outdoor festival at UCSB… There were a few Trulio Disgracias shows, too. The last time I saw them was at Raji’s with Rage Against The Machine opening. Talk about bands going in different directions. Fishbone never became an iota as big as any of its peers or bands it toured with (RCHP, No Doubt, Primus, Beastie Boys…) yet soldiers on to this day. A new and excellent documentary, Everyday Sunshine, details the Los Angeles band’s existence–evolving from ska to funk to free jazz and prog rock but always with a punk rock attitude–and the struggles it has faced. Yes, they are a unique and awesome band that could only emerge from the City of Angels’ cultural melting pot and original punk scene, but they have also been cursed by the town’s conservative entertainment industry, unimaginative mainstream media, and very real race issues.
But after all, there’s still the music. On Thursday night, the band played a special hometown show to celebrate the local release of the documentary as well as as a brand-new EP. The tiny Bootleg Theater was packed with family and friends but mostly hardcore fans for a strong, sweaty set that lasted well over two hours. Fishbone got “Everyday Sunshine” out of the way right away–a timeless, righteous funk number that could be played right before or Stevie Wonder at his peak without making you blink an eye–and went right into some older ska tunes. “A Selection” and “Ma and Pa” are witty and super-catchy songs that recall the time when it seemed like Fishbone was destined to cross over and rule the world’s airwaves. The newer songs sounded great in a live setting, too. I thought Norwood’s bass was like a bazooka–like something from a Sly & Robbie track. Meanwhile, Angelo remains one of the iconic frontmen among all genres of music.
The band touched on many of the its key eras and songs but wasn’t afraid to tweak any of them. I really dug the super extended intro to “Party at Ground Zero” and jammed-out “Sunless Saturday,” which ended the set. “Freddy’s Dead” is still an awesome cover–on par with The English Beat’s take on “Tears of a Clown,” in my opinion–but what’s up with “Date Rape”? Fishbone doesn’t need to cover a group like Sublime; it should be the other way around. I also wish the set included some of the group’s more somber songs like “Movement in the Light” or “Change,” which are as solid and smart as The Replacements’ “Skyway” or The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment,” but I never saw The Ramones play slow songs in concert, either.
It was interesting to have recently seen the documentary depicting the band during its younger years with all of its promise and personalities, imploding under the pressure caused by riots, politics, and big business–not to mention a case of cult membership/kidnapping that was never really clear to me until I saw the movie. The band’s membership eroded to two original members, singer Angelo Moore and bassist Norwood Fisher, who struggled to survive, stay creative, and coexist. After all of their struggles, it was their enduring partnership and friendship that stole the spotlight on the tiny club’s stage as much as the sweat and songs (and Dirty Walt back on trumpet).
While Fishbone has been playing for more than 30 years, Shellac is merely on the cusp of 20. I was stoked to see both crucial bands on back-to-back nights, and the latter was at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts. The post hardcore trio from Chicago is known for being badasses (Albini was famously ranked as the number-one asshole in rock by Chunklet) and their heavy-as-shit, angry-as-hell, and perfectly executed music backs it up. Like Fugazi without soul or Nomeansno without jazz, they are pure anger, chops, and smarts. They’re up there with bands like that, with a limited but intense following.
Actually, they might be softening up just a bit. Toward the end of the evening, Steve Albini made sure that one of the younger members of the audience had left the venue before the band launched into “You Came In Me.” The band also complemented the venue as looking good and sounding great. Not everyplace has such a cool spot, Bob Weston said, giving credit to his friends (and fellow Chicagoans relocated down the street) at Permanent Records, for suggesting Shellac make a stop there.
But although Shellac doesn’t fuck around when it comes to playing music (or providing smart-ass answers to questions from the crowd while Albini tunes) it’s not like the band doesn’t have fun. They have no shame when it comes to unorthodox drumming configurations, synchronized guitar moves, or even combining spoken words and posturing. And last night’s set ending was one of the raddest I’ve ever seen. As Todd Trainer wailed on the drums, the dual singer/shredders dismantled his set until he was left standing triumphantly with his drumsticks pointed at the sky. It was as if the band was ending with an exclamation point instead of a question mark about clapping or sticking around for encores.
Two legendary bands from right up against the stage in two tiny venues in two nights. Time to catch up on sleep…