Tonight’s gig feels like a well kept secret. An obscure name, a small venue, and little – if any – sign that the headline (and only) act is the front man of two of the most popular ska punk bands of the last ten years. For Toh Kay is Tomas Kalnoky; singer, guitarist and songwriter for both Streetlight Manifesto and (the original and best version of) Catch 22. Rock star he may be on paper (I last saw him at one of the biggest and maddest shows of Boomtown 2015), but Tomas has always seemed shy and humble to me – which this reasonably low key tour reflects (apparently Manchester was the only date so far where people stood up??).
The advertising ahead of this show (which like most these days, predominantly revolved around Facebook), told me three things: That the show had sold out, that there would be no support, and that Tomas would play for two and a half hours. Only one of those points pleased me in truth… I’m always disappointed when local artists don’t get to play with their heroes, and I’m not sure I have an attention span long enough for two and a half hours of anything. (The original billing had promised ‘Special Guests’ – but as my friends reflected with me beforehand, perhaps that was us??)
Tomas started the set in a predictably nondescript way – him tuning a guitar (which we cheered). Him checking things worked (which we cheered). Him drinking water (which we cheered – it was unreasonably hot, after all). He opened by saying that he would alternate between one song he wanted (which he’d rather endearingly written up his arm) and an audience request. It’s fair to say this was a popular strategy – although Streetlight’s cover album did confuse a number of punters who repeatedly requested ‘Linoleum‘….
The first half of the evening followed as a mesmerising set of Streetlight songs, but played with incredibly nimble skill on the guitar, no hint that they are characterised as a ska band, and the chilling and compelling vocals that characterise Tomas’ writing. The audience sang every word (and horn part) – but not in an loud, offensive or unpleasant way… It may sound cheesy, but it felt like a very gentle and romantic melody. We were mesmerised. Streetlight classics like ‘Somewhere in the Between‘ and ‘A Moment of Silence‘ were mixed in with older tunes like ‘Sick & Sad‘ (Catch 22) and even ‘It’s A Wonderful Life‘ (Bandits of the Acoustic Revolution – Tomas’ first foray without a big electric band).
Just when I was starting to think I might implode with happiness, I ran out of wine (not an unusual combination). When I returned from the bar, Tomas had been joined by a double bassist and a drummer…. And while I would have hoped this would bring a diverse lens to the performance, in truth it led to a dulling of the set. They became more like a lounge band. Tomas’ guitar work – so overwhelming at the start – gave way to groove. Now I love groove – but it did still feel like a step backwards, and the audience noticeably lost some attention. This was further influenced by the choice to play 6-7 songs back to back from Streetlight’s latest album (‘The Hands That Thieve – 2013), which frankly isn’t a patch on their stand out 2007 record (Somewhere in the Between). The title track THTT was a highlight – but after two hours, the audience was thrilled when Tomas reverted to his classics (and no back up musicians) to close – with final song ‘The Big Sleep‘ proving especially popular.
Many acoustic or ‘one man’ versions of a full group feel like a money spinner. They are sometimes lazy. They often seem like the result of certain band members refusing to tour – whilst others have no idea what else to do with their summer. This was everything but that – Tomas has always been one of the most talented musicians in this genre, and Streetlight Manifesto in particular have challenged boundaries and stereotypes to great effect. I could listen to the first hour of this set every day…. And I remain amazed that the tour didn’t cash out as much as it could have. Still, selfishly, I’m glad to have been in on the secret – and I can’t wait to see what he does next (in any capacity, except possibly the lounge band one).
To hear the best of Toh Kay, grab ‘Streetlight Lullabies’ now