California Dreamin' Charged West Coast Ska Heats Up Cambridge

Goldfinger/Reel Big Fish/Blue Meanies at the Middle East Downstairs Saturday, January 25

With the recent popularity of bands like No Doubt, Sublime and Goldfinger, the ska scene has seen its music, or at least a kind of diluted derivative, vaulted into the radio spotlight. Goldfinger's "Here In My Bedroom" deservedly broke through to the mainstream with its undeniably infectious intro melody and catchy chorus. The song's radio air-play was probably what packed the sold-out show at the Middle East with a predominantly teenage crowd. Yet no matter what the listener's motivation, whether radio or devotion to a particular band, the audience was graced with two extraordinarily energetic opening sets by the Blue Meanies and Reel Big Fish, even if the word ska was not a part of their vocabulary. Following the amazing music of the opening bands, however, was the disappointing monotony of Goldfinger. The band threw in a few twists that kept the crowd on its feet and a little quirky entertainment to push the music forward, but these attempts drowned in an otherwise sluggish set of tunes.

The first band to play from the trio of California-based groups was the Blue Meanies. With a tenor saxophone and trumpet punching out a melodic complement to the solid rhythm section, the Blue Meanies succeeded in getting the musical juices flowing for the bands to follow, but failed to do anything more in terms of excitement. A notably captivating aspect of the set was the manner in which the lighting was modified to the tempo of each song. Manually operated, the multicolored stage lights were switched on and off faster during the upbeat songs while the slower, drawn-out rhythms calmed the light technician down. Sadly, the Blue Meanies were not much more memorable than that.

Reel Big Fish, on the other hand, was louder, dorkier and animated, making it the highlight of the afternoon. The personality of the band, even without playing music, gave the impression of incoherence and misfit randomness. Two pairs of brass instrument players, using trumpets and trombones, donned an array of sweaters, T-shirts, jeans and slacks in a piecemeal collection of colors and fabrics. As the dark-dressed bass player crouched near the drums, the lead singer/guitarist burst on stage with a screaming electric blue Hawaiian shirt, checkered rim sunglasses and a blinding smile.

If the lack of uniformity gave any inkling about the band's music, it showed how each of their individual talents could blend into a beautiful performance. Once Reel Big Fish hit the first note, there was no stopping the unrelenting in-your-face power of the horns and vocals backed up by a classic ska rhythm and background harmonies.

The band covered a gamut of themes like an ex-girlfriend's new-found popularity, the greedy economics of record companies and beer. Members playfully attacked each other and the horn players danced around stage while the lead singer bounced in place with his gaudy clothes and unrealistically large smile, never missing a beat. Midway through the set, Reel Big Fish pleased even those audience members unfamiliar with its music with a cover of Operation Ivy's "Unity". The band's unique capability to appeal to newcomers was what made it successful; it didn't let a minute go by without entertaining an energized audience that eagerly awaited Goldfinger.

If the crowd was looking for generic power chord fodder in Goldfinger's performance, then its anticipation was satisfied. The band's ska roots were watered down to the point that the ska-based guitar rhythm would pop up every so often, as if it remained a vestigial part of the band by failing to make a musical statement. Consequently, the noisy uniformity of the music washed away the lyrics into inaudible oblivion. Unbelievably, however, the audience continued to eat up the performance as they threw themselves at each other and jumped along to the drum rhythms.

To maintain the crowd's energy flow, Goldfinger conveniently placed a few tricks throughout the set to recharge the audience. Playing on the familiarity of memorable tunes, they played covers of The Cure, The Misfits and Joe Jackson. About a third of the way through their show, just as the initial energy of the audience was dying down, Goldfinger unleashed "Here In My Bedroom," and the timeliness set the adolescent crowd crazy.

As people rushed the stage and grabbed microphones to sing along, the staff of the Middle East couldn't restrain the youthful onslaught. An inexplicable intensity in Goldfinger's music triggered the young audience in a way it could not have done for any other age group. The uncontrollable sight was amazing. Goldfinger's greatest talent must have been their unbelievable method of manipulating the audience into a frenzy. Soon the crowd replaced the music as entertainment, but quickly turned as uninteresting as the band's songs.

Goldfinger failed to have the never-ending energy and musical potential of Reel Big Fish or the comic fare of the Blue Meanies' cartoon quality tunes. Maybe the band should have remained true to its ska influences or instead trailed down a more creative musical path. Despite the bittersweet performance, Goldfinger certainly knew how to handle a live audience, which is more than what some bands could ever offer.