There’s a unique tension that exists between the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the fans in the crowd: for the guys on stage, a good show requires precision, in dress and musical performance, even movements; a good night for the mass of people rests upon the successful implementation of the exact opposite — moshing into a hot sweaty mess, riding the crowd, letting go of inhibitions and being OK with looking like a fool. The music has to be tight; the fans cannot. By that measure, and a few more, the Bosstones appearance at the 9:30 club on Saturday was a good night.
The elephant in the room when contemplating a Bosstones show in 2010 is the, “Huh, they’re still around?” question. These guys invented the ska-core genre that exploded in the 1990s, and in that role they influenced a heck of a lot of good bands, but, well, we all know what happened to music after that: hardcore ska fed into pop punk, some great bands put out some great albums, a whole bunch more not-so-great bands put out some not-so-great albums, and that guy from Good Charlotte married Nicole Richie. The music world moved on, and in 2003, Dicky Barrett and the rest of the Bosstones looked around at the industry, packed up the saxophones, and found themselves some greener pastures.
By 2007, they were back together, hitting the road on a near-constant tour schedule and finding their groove again, and that brings us to the question of the Bosstones in 2010: When a band is identified so strongly with a particular genre, and pop culture has moved on from that genre, what’s left? (Remember “Clueless,” the movie that for better or worse was a lot of people’s first introduction to the Bosstones? Yeah, it turned 15 this month.)
What’s left turns out to be, well, pretty much the same thing that made a lot of people love the Bosstones back then in the first place: a good time, catchy lyrics, bass lines that alter the rhythm of your heart if you’re not careful, and a singer whose voice sounds like he gargles with rusty nails every night before he goes to bed. Saturday night was for the most part balanced very, very carefully on the positive side of a nostalgia fest; so many 30-somethings had dug into the back of the closet for the fedora and the checkered accessories that it seemed like the 9:30 Club had advertised a ’90s retro dress contest. The Bosstones know their crowd, though, and they offered up a lot of what everyone wanted to hear, reaching back a decade or two and bringing out fine-tuned versions of “Someday I Suppose,” “The Rascal King,” “Stand Off,” “Noise Brigade,” “Where’d you Go?” and, of course, “The Impression That I Get.” (AS IF they could ever go anywhere and get away with skipping it.) The crowd chanted the familiar “Mighty Mighty … BOSSTONES” refrain, everyone sang along, a few brave folks surfed, and at times, as much as I enjoyed the scene and the songs, I started to wonder if the whole night weren’t some exercise in self-indulgent nostalgia. Was this my own version of one of those tour-with-your-childhood-icons cruises for people who can’t let go of the past?
But ahh, no, Dicky and the boys are better than that. Every time my mind wandered toward reflecting on the choices I made as a 15-year-old ska fan back in the day, they’d pull out a tune from last December’s “Pin Points and Gin Joints,” the Bosstones first studio release since 2002. The songs are still Bosstones songs–some of the best–but they don’t have that familiar ring that comes from listening to them on repeat for 15 years. And their prominent placement in the setlist is a clear statement that the Bosstones are not interested in being your trip down memory lane. They opened with “Graffiti Worth Reading” and closed with “Nah Nah Nah Nah Nah,” assuring that your first and last impression of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in 2010 is that they have something new to say.
The encore kept this balance perfectly: in honor of what would have been Joe Strummer’s 58th birthday on Saturday, they broke out The Clash’s “Rudy Can’t Fail,” which, no offense to those fine gentlemen from Boston, was probably the greatest thing I heard all night. They closed out the encore and the night with another “Gin Joints” tune, “A Pretty Sad Excuse.” Like everything else about the Bosstones in 2010, it’s a classic, catchy tune, but like many of their fans, it’s older, wiser, and still in the mood to party.
Sidenote: You’re getting my review of this show and not Darpino’s because of a logistical snafu in which he valiantly let me go in his stead. I raise a glass of gin to his kindness.