Turn The Radio Off: Reel Big Fish marks 20th anniversary

Johnny Christmas
Johnny Christmas: a rock star with a trumpet.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

It’s true: Reel Big Fish is a “Sell Out.”

The horny and frenzied ska band that broke into the mainstream with the Top 40 and MTV hit song “Sell Out” sold out its 2016 show at the 1,000-capacity venue Cargo Concert Hall in the Whitney Peak Hotel. So fans are advised to get tickets in advance for the Reel Big Fish show on Valentine’s Day, Tuesday, Feb. 14, again at Cargo.

The band will play in its entirety its album released 20 years ago, “Turn The Radio Off.” Like-minded special guest Pittsburgh’s political punkers Anti Flag will perform all of the songs from its album “Die For The Government.” The opening band is PkewPkewPkew, punk rockers from Canada.

While the Huntington Beach band’s time in the mainstream was fleeting, Reel Big Fish remains exceedingly popular with a devout fan base that stretches across the globe. Why? It’s always on tour, the songs are funny and resonating and, moreover, the performances are a blast.

“I’ve played in all forms of musical situations and this is definitely the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” trumpeter Johnny Christmas told Tahoe Onstage. “If you are not having a good time (onstage), then there’s something wrong with you because the crowds are intense. They are super excited and they love to have a good time. We play so much that we rarely have crowds that aren’t going crazy.”

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
Reel Big Fish return to the stage in Reno on Feb. 14.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

The band’s tour manager is Tom Ames, who had the same role during the entire run of the Beat Farmers, a band legendary for it outlandish performances and “drunken mushroom hillbilly ballet” ringleader Country Dick Montana. After County Dick died onstage in 1995, Ames intended to quit the road. But he changed his tune when Reel Big Fish enticed him to oversee its frolicsomeness.

“I had offers, but, you know, I need to have fun,” Ames said. “That’s what attracted them to me. It was 1999, and I said, ‘I will come aboard if you guys work,’ and, sure as hell, we’ve been working pretty steady for the time I’ve been around.”

There have been 17 changes to the band and crew since Ames was hired.

Johnny Christmas joined while he was in a band called Forces of Evil, which included current Reel Big Fish members Aaron Barrett, the lead singer, along with bass player and high-school buddy Derek Gibbs. Back in the day, Johnny Christmas was still known as John Christianson, and Gibbs played trombone.

“Aaron formed Forces of Evil because he thought Reel Big Fish was going to implode after (the album) ‘Cheer Up,’ ” Christmas said. “There were some personality conflicts and ‘Cheer Up’ was a bit more of a pop record than a ska record. He was seeing the writing on the wall that things weren’t going to last. We made a record and toured when Reel Big Fish wasn’t on the road.”

Along with Fishbone and No Doubt, Reel Big Fish was part Orange County’s answer to Britain’s Two Tone Revolution, headed by Madness and the Specials. But Ska’s popularity faded at the end of the 1990s.

Reel Big Fish did not, of course, implode, and Christmas’ presence with the band began in 2004. With a horn section that’s out front, rather than in the back of the stage, Reel Big Fish is ideal for Christmas, who always wanted to be a rock-star trumpet player. He started college studying classical music but at an instructor’s suggestion, became a jazz major. He wanted to emulate bandleaders such as Chris Botti, Al Hirt, Herb Albert and Chuck Mangione.

“We would play college shows with hip-hop acts and you see the people who are up in front that are waiting for the band after you,” Christmas said. “You see them with their arms crossed the first couple of songs. And then they uncross their arms, and then they start smiling. And then they start bobbing their heads. I love doing that. It’s like opening up this can of ‘let the fun out’ from these people who were not expecting to have fun at your show.”

The songs — pointed, visceral and hilarious – inspire lifelong fans.

“They are great songs you can identify with emotionally,” Christmas said. “I met a fan once who was working in produce, and he said: ‘All the people in the produce field are assholes. Your song ‘Everyone Else is an Asshole’ gets me through the day every day.’ And to be able to have an impact on anyone’s life is very special.

“People identify with different songs. People will say, ‘This song or this record really helped me get through a hard time in my life.’ That’s all you can ask for is to leave this world a slightly better place than what you came into. I feel that I am doing the best possible thing I can do with my life by conveying this music and making people happy. I’m really lucky.”

  • Reel Big Fish
    Openers: Anti Flag, PkewPkewPkew
    When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 14; doors open at 6.
    Where: Cargo Concert Hall in the Whitney Peak Hotel
    Tickets: $22-$25

Related stories:
— Finally a tune for unsung hero tour manager Tom Ames.

— Check out the review and photos of the 2016 Reno concert: LINK

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.


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