By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — They might not be the biggest band to emerge from Los Angeles during the early ’80s, but pioneering ska/punk/funk outfit Fishbone remains one of the most influential and eclectic acts to call LA home since first coming together in 1979.

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Formed by a group young African-American teens who were brought together by their school district’s busing program, founding members the Fisher brothers (Norwood on bass and Phillip “Fish” Fisher on drums), singer/trumpet player “Dirty” Walt Kibby III, keyboard/trombone player Christopher Dowd and guitarist Kendall Jones were all from South Central Los Angeles. They met the group’s future frontman and saxophonist Angelo Moore when they were sent to Moore’s native San Fernando Valley during junior high school.

The band’s brash mixture of punk, ska and funk influences quickly helped Fishbone build a following as the group played punk venues around LA and established a reputation for high-energy stage performances as it became a fixture of the SoCal club scene in the early ’80s. Signed to Columbia Records, the group’s eponymous EP in 1985 became an underground hit and earned significant airplay with the infectious anti-war single “Party at Ground Zero” and the radio roll call tune “? (Modern Industry)” that name checked the call letters of several Bay Area stations.

While the band’s first full-length album In Your Face didn’t further elevate the band in the mainstream, it showed a growing political consciousness in the lyrics and polished the band’s amalgam of styles. A spot opening for the Beastie Boys on the Licensed to Ill tour helped introduce Fishbone to a far wider audience.

They made a creative breakthrough with Truth and Soul in 1988, introducing heavier guitars on the crushing cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” and the hardcore frenzy of “Subliminal Fascism” while showing of their funk chops with the explosive “Bonin’ in the Boneyard.”

The band’s next album — The Reality of My Surroundings in 1991 — stood out as their most ambitious yet and seemed to signal the breakthrough they had been working towards for a decade. With the addition of former Miles Davis musical director John Bingham on guitar and keyboards (who joined during the Truth and Soul tour), the band further established its status as arguably the best live bands of the era.

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After the release of the more metallic Give a Monkey a Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe in 1993, the band joined the third edition of the Lollapalooza with Primus, Alice in Chains, Tool and Rage Against the Machine and appeared poised for even greater success when guitarist Jones had a mental break and quit the band.

When Norwood Fisher tried to convince the guitarist to rejoin the band, believing he’d been brainwashed by a religious group, the bassist ended up being charged with kidnapping. While the band was able to participate in Lollapalooza and Fisher was eventually acquitted, the incident marked the beginning of a gradual disintegration for the band. Dowd would depart the following year and by 1995, Fishbone had been dropped by Sony. As the end of the decade approached, “Fish” Fisher and Bingham were gone as well.

But Moore and Norwood Fisher would soldier on with a variety of collaborators who helped the band maintain its reputation as a fiery live act, including former Suicidal Tendencies guitarist Rocky George and keyboard player Dre Gipson. Their recorded output became more sporadic, but the group continued to tour regularly and were frequently name checked by the legion of Orange County ska revivalists like No Doubt and Reel Big Fish who were inspired by the band. The crew experienced some renewed interest after their fascinating saga was told in the acclaimed 2010 documentary Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone.

2017 found Fishbone reuniting its classic-era late ’80s line-up with longtime stalwarts Norwood Fisher, “Dirty” Walt Kibby and kinetic frontman Moore once again teaming with Fisher’s drum-playing brother, guitarist Bingham and keyboardist/trombonist Dowd. Since then, the revitalized group has been tearing up stages and appearing at a variety of festivals over the past year in addition to sharing stages with contemporaries like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Living Colour.

While Bingham would leave the band again in 2019 (guitarist/keyboardist Mark Phillips took his place), the band has continued to bring its explosive, high-energy stage performances to enthusiastic audiences across the globe. The group returns to San Francisco for its first post-pandemic appearances this week, headlining the Bottom of the Hill for two nights. Hysterical one-man groove tornado and former Bay Area resident Chaki the Funk Wizard brings his mix of deranged covers and unhinged original songs to open the Tuesday night show, while high-octane Oakland garage punk/R&B outfit the Atom Age supports Fishbone on Wednesday evening.

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Tuesday-Wednesday, Dec. 14-15, 8 p.m. $33-$38
Bottom of the Hill