Reel Big Fish + Less Than Jake + Zebrahead @ O2 Academy, Birmingham – Saturday 8th February 2014

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Review by Ian Savage, photos by Russ Tierney

 

Within moments of Ryland Steen stepping onstage, he’s voiced the question that many people around the Academy tonight are asking: “Why is the drummer from Reel Big Fish standing there with an acoustic guitar and a microphone?”. He capably answers it over the next twenty minutes, rattling through half-a-dozen songs from his new solo album ‘This Magnificent’ – it’s a low-key but well-received opening to the evening, the subtle single-acoustic-and-vocal approach apparently a pared-down version of what the album has in store. It should be well worth a listen on the strength of this.

Zebrahead
Zebrahead

By contrast, Zebrahead enter to the theme from ‘Team America’ and launch into ‘Rescue Me’ with the power of a small atomic weapon. You’d think the surface of the stage was wired to the mains for how little time the band spend in one place, all four fronting members covering serious ground without dropping a note of their punk-tinged modern rock; although possibly the underdogs on this tour they provoke a healthy response from the ever-increasing crowd and put in an incredibly musically-accomplished performance (witness Dan Palmer’s virtuoso solo in ‘Sirens’ and two-handed-tapped intro to ‘Postcards’).

The odd bit of crowd-pleasing schtick helps with the party feel that a bill like this should surely instill – a synchronised audience ‘sit-on-floor-then-jump-up’ interlude; a pair of what can only be described as ‘comedy Germans’ leading a mass drink-along; a rousing chorus of a song apparently called ‘Drink, Drink, My Brummies’.

This would be nothing but pantomime if the music wasn’t up to scratch; although lighter on the ska than the co-headliners tonight, Zebrahead warm up superbly with the rapped vocals and stage-traversing energy of Ali Tabatabaee pulling them away being ‘just another punk-rock band’. They sprint for the finish through ‘Only Here For The Free Beer’ into closing track ‘Anthem’ with a guest appearance from Reel Big Fish’s horn section – so far, so excellent.

Less Than Jake
Less Than Jake

A few people around the Academy are surprised to see the Less Than Jake banner erected at the back of the stage after Zebrahead’s set, clearly unaware of the alternating ‘headline’ slot on this tour; the Gainesville boys are greeted like returning heroes, and look genuinely happy to be here as they pummel the packed-like-sardines crowd from the get-go with new tune ‘Good Enough’ and old favourite ‘Automatic’. Bassist/vocalist Roger urges the Academy to “be fucking careful but go fucking crazy”, which largely sums up the feel of the evening – crowd-surfers and circle-pits are present in abundance, but anyone unlucky enough to lose their footing is instantly picked up by a dozen hands.

The manic stage energy and inter-song interaction initiated by the openers is cranked up a notch by LTJ – there should surely be ‘Warning – Low-Swinging Brass Instruments’ signs in the wings of the stage, and on three separate occasions audience members are bought onstage to participate in a ‘dance-off’ (competing for a ‘full bottle of Jack Daniels’ – be aware, terms and conditions may apply). There’s hilarious inter-song banter between the band members and a total party vibe across the audience as they fire out hit after hit interspersed with equally well-received material from new album ‘See The Light’.

Less Than Jake
Less Than Jake

A near-perfect front-of-house mix and showers of confetti ensure that ‘All My Best Friends Are Metalheads’ provokes borderline hysteria, whilst there are ACTUAL waving lighters as things are slowed down for ‘Rest Of My Life’. There’s only one song that Less Than Jake could really choose to leave on this evening – with an understated introduction of “I smell toast!” they attack ‘Gainesville Rock City’ like it was their first tour playing it, and leave the crowd dazed, sweaty and exhilarated.

Reel Big Fish
Reel Big Fish

The bar has been set incredibly high for Reel Big Fish, then. Luckily they have the material in the canon and the sheer charisma to at least get close to it – frontman Aaron Barrett and bassist Derek Gibbs refuse to stay in one spot for longer than is absolutely necessary straight out of the traps into ‘Everything Sucks’, and the band highlight their ska credentials with ‘Want Your Girl’. ‘Everyone Else Is An Asshole’ is dedicated to “everyone in the world except you guys”, and the brass section are used to the maximum throughout.

Reel Big Fish
Reel Big Fish

Although a few in the audience are noticeably flagging by now, the instruction of ‘In The Pit’ to “fuck up shit” is largely followed, and the band’s biggie ‘Where Have You Been?’ is perfectly placed mid-set to lure anyone tempted to the bar area back to the front. Second major-label smash ‘Monkey Man’ is introduced along with the information that The Specials’ bassist is side-stage (“No pressure, Derek”) and leads into a slide through a few old favourites towards closer ‘Sell Out’.

A fair few punters are by now leaving for last transport home – which is a shame, as they miss RBF fully levelling tonight’s score with their encore. Emerging back onstage with a hyperspeed blast of Bouncing Souls’ version of ‘OlĂ©’, they proceed to power out four or five versions of “that same song” (‘S.R.’) in various styles for comic effect, before closing with the one-two punch of ‘Beer’ and their inimitable version of ‘Take On Me’. With barely a low point to the whole night, the remainder of 2014 has a LOT to live up to.

Read our interview with Vinnie Fiorello from Less Than Jake

 

See more of Russ’s photos here;