MC Bat Commander's ill-fitting uniform barely contained his pot belly as he announced, "It's been seven years since we've played here, but we've been working out the entire time." Later in the set, he pulled three children from the front row on stage and chucked them one
by one into the audience to crowd surf, as if baptizing them in the name of punk rock. Blame it on the Aquabats' St. Louis date landing on a Sunday, but the band's sold-out show at the Firebird recalled a religious revival. Each responsive shout from the congregation - mostly underage and sugarbuzzed - felt like an "amen" screamed in agreement with the group of wannabe superheroes.
While the evening's other acts, Mustard Plug and young locals Samuriot, proved a more direct belief in the denomination of ska, the Aquabats preached a doctrine of overall levity. While never abandoning the genre of its roots, its new wave and synth pop influences have become more prominent as the band has shed members. Currently a quintet, the band boasted a whopping eight members on 1997's The Fury of the Aquabats.
After an overtly dramatic opening montage projected upon the band's makeshift video projection screen, its members ran on stage in full garb: silver skull caps, black goggles, light blue body suits with the letter A emblazoned upon each, and giant belts like those awarded to WWF champions circa 1986. Bat Commander had a fake mustache drawn on his face while an ironic Dean brand metal guitar hung from the neck of Eagle "Bones" Falconhawk.
Early in the set, Falconhawk busted into a solo during one of the band's rockier mid tempo tunes. Leaning over the audience in a rock star pose, he simply shredded his ass off, fingertapping and pulling showy moves of Dragonforce-like caliber. The gesture summed up the Aquabats to a tee: While conceptually wacky, the band's musical execution has always proven its legitimacy. "Cat with 2 Heads!" was dense with the twisted science lab sonics of a 1950's horror film. Team player Jimmy The Robot switched from synthesizer to saxophone for conventional ska tracks "Martian Girl!" "Pizza Day!" and "Super Rad!"
But in case five wannabe superheroes flailing around wasn't enough visual stimulation, the band's video screen displayed a brain-melting collage of stock footage and bizarre flashes of absurdity. Rather than perform to a sequenced tempo, a hidden man with a laptop (the sixth Aquabat?) controlled the visuals in real time. This allowed the band to bash through its tunes with all the looseness of its punk rock core, while still emphasizing the songs' choruses and intense bridges with appropriate visuals.
The only person at the show who may not have loved the Aquabats' video screen was the drummer of Samuriot. During the band's closer - a Rush song which they made "skankable" - the screen kept falling on his back. He stayed in good spirits, pushing it away from him whilst keeping up with the group's straight-forward set of punky third wave ska. Michigan's Mustard Plug was sandwiched between the openers and headliners. (Full disclosure: I am a recovering ska kid and in 1998 Mustard Plug played a set at the first show I ever attended.) Last evening, the band played maybe three songs which weren't in its catalog back then. The set relied heavily on jams from 1997's Evildoers Beware and even included the group's kind of awesome cover of the Verve Pipe's "The Freshmen."
At first, Mustard Plug's reliance on its decade-old back catalog was off-putting, but when vocalist Dave Kirchgessner inquired, "Who wants to hear a new song?" the crowd reacted as loudly as they sang along to the band's tried-and-true staples. Perhaps this is when the show made the most sense: The ska fans weren't there to witness innovation or judge the bands' artistic merit -- they came for the energy of over one hundred peers dancing, pogo-ing,and skanking together in overall positivity, a welcome change from the violent mentality of most mosh pits. Last night's bloody noses were incidental casualties of uncontainable excitement.
Mustard Plug capped off its set with "Beer (Song)." As Kirchgessner yelped, "They're trying to take it all away / It's getting harder every day," the kids swung their arms wider and kicked their feet out in alternating motions with more intensity than ever. It was a testament to the power of the rock anthem, embracing life's difficulties and pushing through them with a simple melody of "OH"'s. Say what you will about ska as a genre and where it belongs in the context of music in 2010, you'd have to be pretty damn jaded to not have a good time.
Top Ten Sweetest Things Projected on The Aquabats' Video Screen, below... 10. Guy in Speedo fighting a spiky lizard-man by poolside 9. Huge King Kong-esque fist grabbing a Richard Pryor doppleganger 8. Montage of people jumping on diving boards quickly spliced with grunge-era crowd surfing 7. The Statue of Liberty exploding 6. Giant tarantula terrorizing England 5. Woman stabbing an alien with a coat rack 4. Carousel in which passengers and their horses became animated cartoons and flew away 3. Monkey on roller skates 2. Obese man in a bee costume bellyflopping 1. Three-eyed tiger with laser vision riding a flying bicycle