The Viagra joke was obvious enough. The reunited Johnny Socko, taking the stage in its original lineup for the first time in 14 years, is having trouble getting it up these days, so a few minutes into the show, they passed around a bowl of little blue pills, using and abusing the elderly gentleman's wonder drug, sharing it with loyal audience members who were also edging into early middle age.
But the rest of it was inspired. Lead singer Michael Wiltrout, wearing a banana suit, rolling onto the stage in a Rascal to sing the opening lyrics to "The Girl from Ipanema" in a weak, octogenarian voice. Later giving away prizes - a staple of both Socko shows and gigs with his current band, The Leisure Kings - that ranged from Avon men's cologne to angel figurines. And of course, blowing fire - and please give credit to photographer Stephen Simonetto for staying alert, racing photographer-style, and getting a good shot of the fireball.
In all, Johnny Socko lived up to their reputation as a party band, while suggesting why they never quite made it during the prime era for ska-punk - a lack of truly memorable songs, perhaps too much fondness for klezmer and a shifting membership. After all, two of the genuine eccentrics in the band - Born Again Floozies bandleader Welch and Wiltrout - left well before Socko finally called it quits, leaving the band without quite the charisma or weirdness.
But they also still had all the energy that made them a great party band, with a solid horn section that includes ESW leader Joshua Silbert on sax, an ability to range from funk to reggae to ska and back, and a few singalongs - "Bitch Stole My Hat," in particular - which the audience knew by heart. And even if they joked about their age, the band was still quite capable and energetic, perhaps credit to the fact that many members still remain active musicians. Of course, their sound is dated, ska having died a slow death of too many goofballs, and there being no place in music for even tongue-in-cheek reggae-style freestyles performed by very white men. But the show had to have been great fun for those that followed the band in its prime, and there have been worse periods for popular music than the one from which Socko sprouted - too much sophomoric humor is better than excessive moroseness, and I'll take Reel Big Fish over Candlebox and day.
Even if Socko plays a few more gigs, this reunion won't likely lead to new material. That's not the case for Mab Lab, which drummer Eric Brown says will be recording and performing throughout the rest of this year and the next. I'm curious to see what direction the band will take. Their performance Friday seemed divided into Kate Lamont's solo work and Mab Lab songs. Lamont's songs featured herself with bass and drums, and were more in the vein of a power ballad, if a quite pretty ballad - anything Lamont puts her brilliant, whistling voice to takes flight. But those tunes certainly didn't integrate the emcees in the band. It was only on older Mab Lab tracks that Mike Graves joined in, freestyling on the verses while Lamont sung out the choruses. The trouble is, for a band that labels itself trip-hop, Mab Lab's sound Friday night wasn't exceptionally trippy, just straightforward hip-hop and balladry. If Socko came together like they had never been apart, Mab Lab seemed like several talented musicians that just happened be on the same stage, and were largely doing their own thing.