All photos: Emily Cohen
I approached Streetlight Manifesto’s 9:30 Club show on Sunday with a bit of nostalgia. The last time I saw them was at the 2009 Warped Tour, and since then I hadn’t seen any popular ska bands play live. I’m not too far removed from a time when ska was a big part of who I was, so the prospect of seeing Streetlight again brought back some fond memories.
I thought of my high school ska band and our annual shows at the local Main Street Festival. I thought of my old checkered shorts and an awful research project I did about Jamaican music. I thought of the weirdly transcendent dorm room sing-a-long that is Reel Big Fish’s “She Has A Girlfriend Now.” But at some point over the past couple of years I grew out of ska. The peppiness of it all felt exhausting, and so I traded those offbeat guitar chinks for Moog melodies and whatever Sufjan Stevens touches. I knew I was going to have a good time at Streetlight’s show. Who doesn’t enjoy pulling an Uncle Rico and reminiscing about the glory days from time to time? However, I didn’t expect that it was going to change my mind about what ska means to me in the present moment. For a genre grounded in historical “waves” and predictable tropes, ska still has a place in the modern music landscape and in my life. And Streetlight Manifesto proved this by seriously, seriously kicking ass on Sunday night.
Streetlight’s manic take on horn-laden ska-punk sounds great on their studio recordings, but the band was another animal entirely when playing live. The musicianship of the stellar four-man horn section is one of the band’s defining aspects, and on stage they sounded incredible. Tearing through speedy licks and playing off of one another seamlessly, they successfully tended to my horn fetish, which doesn’t need further elaboration. Their cohesive, energetic display perfectly complemented the rhythm section and lead singer/guitarist Tomas Kalnoky, whose dense lyrics and raspy vocals came across live as a beautiful mess of cathartic prose. This juxtaposition of sloppiness and tightness made for a constantly thrilling set.
The packed floor at the 9:30 Club went nuts as soon as they heard the opening baritone sax riff of “Everything Went Numb.” There was skanking, moshing, dancing, jumping, sweating and some hybrid of all of these things that perpetuated en masse for most of the set. Streetlight’s songs often feature multiple shifts in tempo, and the transitions between bouncy offbeats and blistering punkish fervor gave me more chills than any bass drop I’ve heard this year. And the sing-a-longs were massive and passionate, albeit as coherent as the sprinting tempos allowed.
The set, which lasted just over an hour, was comprised mainly of songs from the band’s two albums of original material. The anthemic “We Will Fall Together” and “Down, Down, Down to Mephisto’s Cafe” were both invigorating in a live setting, and it was fascinating to break down just how many great hooks and horn fanfares were stuffed into each of them. Same goes for the rousing “A Better Place, A Better Time,” a song which carries legitimate emotional weight in the context of an era where reasons to be pessimistic seem to show up everywhere we look. Even if Kalnoky’s not one for chatty stage banter, he sells what he does say with the upmost conviction. I liked what Streetlight played from their upcoming release The Hands That Thieve, as it seemed to maintain the characteristics that give so many of their songs staying power.
And staying power is exactly what I took away from this show. Streetlight Manifesto’s songs don’t function like anonymous contributions to a dated ska compilation. They have intensity and intelligence and meaning that isn’t confined to genre conventions. At the same time, the band embraces the past, as evidenced by the fact that Kalnoky had them rerecord the album Keasbey Nights, a touchstone of ’90s ska from his former band Catch 22, instead of letting his record label rerelease the original version. Streetlight’s live fusion of the classic title track from that album with their song “Point/Counterpoint”
is a meta jab by Kalnoky at his former bandmates, but it also serves to represent how he can draw inspiration from his former life instead of merely deeming it a relic of another time.
That’s where I realized I currently stand on ska. I may not listen to it on a daily basis anymore, but I’m at a point where those guitar chinks and horn licks can lead me to new discoveries, or even just put a smile on my face. And while all that revelatory introspection was occurring, I was simultaneously being blasted by a searing horn section as people all around me were dancing and screaming their lungs out. There’s still a place for that in 2012. Skank on.