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LIVE REVIEW: Reel Big Fish @ The Sugarmill, Stoke-On-Trent

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WORDS: Jack Fermor-Worrell

If what you’re looking for in music is simply sheer unadulterated happiness, it’s difficult to go wrong with ska-punk. Beginning in the 90’s, this fusion of punk rock energy and brass instruments found immense popularity with audiences across the US and Europe, propelling bands like LESS THAN JAKE and THE MIGHTY MIGHTY BOSSTONES to stardom. Perhaps the biggest success story though, were Orange County’s REEL BIG FISH. Led by charismatic frontman Aaron Barrett, the group have carved out a career lasting 24 years, and still show no sign of slowing down.

Warming up the crowd tonight are fellow Orange County ska-punks SUBURBAN LEGENDS, who take the rather novel approach of playing almost exclusively cover songs for their set – the likes of ‘We Are The Champions’ by QUEEN and ‘One Love’ by BOB MARLEY getting the whole venue singing along enthusiastically. Frontman Vincent Walker simply exudes charisma, bantering with the crowd throughout and momentarily crowd-surfing across the first few rows. The undoubted highlight of their set though, comes with the band’s Disney covers. Both Kiss The Girl and Under The Sea from The Little Mermaid go down an absolute storm with the audience and prove how infectiously catchy SUBURBAN LEGENDS can be. While it would have been nice to hear more original material, you really can’t fault the band for playing it safe, especially when the end result is this much fun.

Rating: 7/10

From the moment they step onto the stage however, it’s clear that tonight truly belongs to REEL BIG FISH. Opening with a jubilant cover of EUROPE’s ‘The Final Countdown’, the entire room immediately starts bouncing in unison and chanting the iconic introduction. Barrett and co. then launch into essentially a career-spanning retrospective set that never once lets up its enthusiasm and energy. Even having to borrow drummer Edward Larsen from SUBURBAN LEGENDS has no obvious detriment to the performance – if anything, Larsen seems high on adrenaline from having already performed a full set, and gives a supremely impressive performance.

It just so happens that tonight is the 17th anniversary of the release of the band’s third album Why Do They Rock So Hard? and this shows in the setlist; both The Kids Don’t Like It and You Don’t Know making an appearance. Aside from that, it’s pretty much business as usual – ultra-hit Sell Out is played early on to great excitement, Trendy incites a roof-raising sing-along and She Has A Girlfriend Now ramps up the ska to the absolute maximum. The actual brass section of the band; trombone player Billy Kottage, saxophonist Matt “Saxel Rose” Appleton and trumpet player Johnny Christmas all play their hearts out on every single track – the latter’s stage presence really shining through tonight.

By the time the evening reaches the inevitable encore, both the band and the audience look exhausted and incredibly happy. Beer remains one of the greatest party songs of the last few decades, and the band’s now iconic cover of Take On Me by A-HA proves the perfect closer to a night that’s proved just how strong the flame of ska-punk still burns.

Rating: 9/10

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Distorted Sound Issue 24 COVER