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Encore: Ska reunion nets young rocker from Cape

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 7, 2013 - In mid-January, I walked into free tickets for a few shows at The Pageant. There was a moment when I thought of passing on a last-second, no-cost chance to catch Dan Potthast (now recast as Dan P), who was opening for long-running ska warriors Reel Big Fish, along with the Pilfers.

Thank gosh that I didn’t.

Dan P’s been on the scene for a good, long while. Though he’s called Santa Cruz, Calif., home for the better part of the past decade, he is frequently back in St. Louis, rehearsing, writing and recording with his own ska group MU330. But with members of the group adding children, jobs and musical side projects, the MU330 train’s all but stopped, with just a few shows played over the past couple years.

At his show at The Pageant, Potthast walked onto stage a few minutes earlier than his scheduled start time. A good omen. The rumor all afternoon suggested that MU330 was going to play a reunion set, or, at least, part of one. Potthast squeezed in about a half-dozen songs before being joined by his “best friends in the world”: bassist Chris Diebold, drummer Ted Moll, and dual trombone players Rob Bell and Gerry Lundquist.

After multiple lineup changes through the group’s earliest years, including the departure of founding vocalist and horn player John Kavanaugh, this lineup burned a path across America on numerous tours, releasing albums internationally through the Asian Man Records label and playing shows throughout Europe and the Pacific Rim. When the band arrived onstage for The Pageant show, long-timers knew the night had a bit extra poignancy, as Lundquist has been battling serious health concerns over the past year.

But the band’s longer-running fans weren’t exactly crowding the stage for the impromptu MU330 set.

“It was funny to me,” Potthast says. “All the people in the pit were young kids, probably wondering ‘Who the hell are these old guys?’ But people in the back were psyched. So that was really nice.

“After the show, I was back by the T-shirts and person after person came up and said ‘Thanks for playing.’ At the merch table at others shows, people have been asking about it; they’d seen photos online. In Chicago and Detroit, they were asking if MU was playing and I’d say, ‘No, just me.’

“Reel Big Fish is the band of eternal youth. Their crowd keeps turning over. They’ve never stopped touring. They’ll ask from stage, ‘Who’s seeing us for the first time?’ And the crowd roars. Their big hit was back in 1997, back when MTV played music videos. A lot of these kids weren’t around then, or were just little babies.”

These fans are kids like Caleb Amelunke.

Into the city

On Jan. 15, Caleb Amelunke, his brother and two friends drove up from Cape Girardeau to catch Reel Big Fish. In one combination, or another, they’ve come to St. Louis for shows, including bigger acts like the Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, mid-career acts like Cage the Elephant and even smaller bands, at little clubs.

There to catch the headliners, Amelunke and his friends were in the audience and enjoying MU’s set. Then, suddenly, things got really interesting. As he’s done for years, Potthast stopped the show before the group’s sing-along-ready “La.” He asked if anyone in the crowd played guitar and a few hands shot up.

Amelunke says that when “he asked for a guitar player, I barely raised my hand. My brother grabbed it and shot it up in the air. Dan picked me and pulled me onto stage. Then he showed me the chords real quick and we played the song.”

To say that the room went nuts would be an understatement. There may’ve been rough edge fore a second, or two, but the whole group was flying by the seat of its pants that night. And with a gig like this, the pure enthusiasm of the moment carried things beyond expectations. Out of all the players that have hopped onstage and performed “La” with the group, few have nailed it quite like this.

“I didn’t have time to think and be nervous,” Amelunke says. “It was crazy. It was kind of like adrenalin. I could barely remember it once I got done.” Asked if he reacted differently when Potthast called for a solo, Amelunke noted that “I’ve been playing for a quite a while, so I just know what works. I tried to improvise a little.”

Amelunke’s 15, a sophomore at Delta High School in southeast Missouri. He’s turning 16 at the end of the month. Why not be confident if you’ve played guitar half your life?

For his part, Potthast says, “We’ve tried to do this for years, pull a kid up from the crowd. I usually pick whoever’s hand goes up quickest. Hopefully, the kid that’s the most confident can actually play. We have them up and teach them the song. Then we go ahead and play it. Sometimes, it works amazingly. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Luckily, Caleb was able to rock it.”

Two guitarists, two cities

After sharing the stage for a glorious few minutes in January, Amelunke and Potthast were half-a-country apart on Monday night. Amelunke was home in Cape.

During an interview, he told me of his band, Old School Hype, which “is kinda alternative rock. That’s pretty much what we stay in, between being mellow and hard. I’ve been playing for eight years and the band’s been playing for three.” To date, the group’s found gigs around the Cape area. And it’s open to picking up gigs in St. Louis, if you happen to book shows.

When leaving The Pageant that night, Amelunke says that plenty of people told him “how cool it was. Walking out, people kept asking if I was the guy playing.” Potthast was happy to hear Amelunke say that “since I went to see Reel Big Fish, I’ve been listening to MU330 a lot. I like their lyrics and ska, in general. That they’re from St. Louis is cool, too, being from Missouri.”

When I reach Potthast a few minutes later, he’s just gotten offstage at the Brooklyn Bowl, in Brooklyn, NY. Our connection is so bad that he calls me back -- from a stall in the club’s men’s room. We determine that this is a pretty rock’n’roll move.

Always one of the nicest guys in the local music scene, that aspect of Potthast’s personality hasn’t changed a bit, as we chat about what’s new in his life.

“I’m five weeks into a six-week tour,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for the past five or six years, just hopping on tours as a solo act, opening for bigger ska bands like Streetlight Manifesto and Reel Big Fish. They’ve been taking me out a lot. I work in Santa Cruz at a crepes restaurant that does rock’n’roll shows. It’s pretty awesome and a good spot to be. I tour a lot and this is a gig that allows me to do that, which is fantastic. Generally, I play one five-to-six week tour, plus a lot of fly-in shows. I’m doing one in New Orleans soon, one in Arkansas. Plus there are a lot of gigs in the Bay Area: San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.”

As for January’s mini-reunion, Potthast says it was a spontaneous one-off, as, “When I got to St. Louis, I thought it’d be silly to come to town and not play with the band. I knew they could do it, and most were already coming to the show. So I texted them and said, ‘Do you wanna come on down? Do you wanna play?’ They were excited. They popped up and rocked it with me. The last time we played was over a year ago. We had a soundcheck and ran through parts of two songs. … It was a short set and so we picked ones that we’ve played a million times, that we can play in our sleep. We’ve played ‘Hoosier Love’ like a thousand times.”

They’ve played “La” a few hundred times, at least, and maybe not as joyfully. Everything about Amelunke’s set-crash with them worked.

As the group was playing, a few things were already circling my brain. It was interesting, if not a tad inspiring, to see Lundquist bounding around the stage, not so very long after being hospitalized. And like many of the older fans, I was mid-way back in the venue, not in the pit with the kids. In the past, an MU330 show in St. Louis was a pure event, with all sorts of craziness breaking out in old rooms like the Creepy Crawl and Mississippi Nights. For those gigs a decade ago, there was nowhere to be but the pit, as a crowd ranging from the late teens to the early 30s collided, while shouting along with Potthast.

At The Pageant, on that monster stage and in front of a half-full house, the band still managed to fill the room with energy, every member of the group smiling from ear-to-ear. Then they pulled a 15-year-old onto the stage, a kid with shoulder-length blonde locks, circa Seattle 1991, and a look straight out of a Cameron Crowe movie. A kid that knew how to play, in part thanks to a group called, of all things, Old School Hype.

Only two weeks into the new year, the rock’n’roll moment of 2013 has already been set in stone.

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer.