When surviving Sublime members Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson announced they were reuniting with new front man Rome Ramirez, I personally met the situation with a bit of trepidation. I feel I’m the target demographic of this reunion, now in my mid-twenties, Sublime fueled my musical childhood. But I was never able to see the band play with Bradley Nowell the fallen frontman and soul of the musical engine that was Sublime.
Sure, there were other bands. My parents hooked me on The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, my brother and sister got me into Phish and Nirvana, but Sublime was “my” first band. When Bradley died in 1996, the band members pursued other ventures, playing a few Sublime tunes throughout their sets, but the moniker was never revived until now.
On a hop, skip and a jump 14-show tour across the US, Bud and Eric would be joined by Rome, headed to play a slew of midsize theaters throughout the country paying homage to the late Bradley Nowell, as some his songs were being played live for the first time.
Having never seen the Bradley heyday of Sublime, the live performances on tape seemed to be fairly hit and miss, with some incendiary moments, but others throwaways. One thing has obviously changed, everyone is sober now. Eric and Bud are completely on point, locked in as if they not only didn’t miss a beat, but have been rejuvenated by getting to play these songs. That’s another thing fairly evident, they are glad to be playing these songs they love. The signature basslines from Eric, the punching backbeat from Bud, these parts are all part of the songs Nowell used as his canvas, and the fans own them just as much, singing their own lead vocals in their head, Rome becomes secondary, a tour guide on the Sublime ride. But I can’t personally wait to hope and see, maybe he will hammer down his own track. So who better to be backbeat of them? If Bradley was the soul, then Eric and Bud were the body. So while it’s changed from the inside, the songs never left.
As the trio took the stage at Chicago’s Riviera Theater, Rome would be at the forefront, and the stage setup would mirror that fact, as the rhythm duo of Bud and Eric were closer together in the back while Rome edged the stage. An opening “Date Rape” grabbed the crowd immediately with the first song that put the trio on the California music scene. After the slow dub of “Get Ready,” and midi-bass swirl of “April 29th, 1992,” a few more sloppy crowd sing-a-longs followed with “Smoke Two Joints” and “Wrong Way,” but the band was sharp stomping these tunes down. The forgetting lyrics, the missing sections of songs, that’s gone.
After “STP” and “Greatest Hits” the evening’s highlight musically was a classic Sublime live interlude of “Don’t Push>Garden Grove>Right Back> New Thrash” which was executed flawlessly. The slow bounce of “Don’t Push,” slowly slid into the midi-keyboard from Wilson of “Garden Grove.” But it was Gaugh that shined as the band slowed to a crawl of “Right Back” before building up the tail end smoothly slamming into “New Thrash” showing he hasn’t lost a step as he hammered down on his kit with Rome slashing his guitar on the punk interlude.
Snuck between two of the band’s bigger crowd pleasers, “Doin’ Time,” and “40oz. To Freedom” was “Panic,” the lone new song of the evening and was a small glimpse into what future songs could be. A big signature ska horn line, from longtime Sublime collaborator Todd Foreman, led into the quick pickup strums from Rome harkening back to the “Date Rape” bounce and thrash. Rome’s voice sounds clean and slick, unfortunately that’s his biggest problem. He provides a potable nostalgic facsimile but desperately needs to mark himself on his own songs, as I’m sure he wants to.
After a little over an hour, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” closed the set for the raucous Chicago crowd, before the group returned for a five song encore. After “Johnny Butt,” Cheez, manager of both bands on the bill, hopped out on acoustic for “What I Got” before the band’s cover of “Scarlet Begonias>Ring The Alarm” and the predictable “Santeria” to send the crowd out with a smile.
Dealing with the elephant in the room, Rome is no Bradley. But that much is obvious, and I thank him for that in some strange way. He breezes through the lyrics penned by Nowell and you can tell he loves the songs, but it’s evident they aren’t his songs. The sporadic moments when Nowell reached down, and grabbed that gritty soul punch that many came to know and love, is noticeably absent with Rome. A screech, a howl, a grumble, a moan, a moment where Bradley’s voice could change the feel of a song in a split second, that is where Rome is lacking.
There were, for lack of a better term, moments of Sublime was just…sublime. When Bradley ripped and meandered bearing his soul, it wasn’t just his lyrics, it was the execution that made them so unique. I for one would love to see Rome find his own voice like that, and see what he is capable of. It’s not ever going to be the same, but again, anyone thinking that would be delusional. If anything is going to happen, it won’t be the next chapter of Sublime, it’s going to be have to be a completely different book.
So with that said, Rome has a daunting task ahead of him if he wants to do something aside from a nostalgia act. Bradley, among other things, was much an emcee, or an Otis Redding style bandleader or a DJ, as he was a guitarist, categorically throwing genres all over each other with production and musical influences. Sublime fans knowingly or not, take in about 30-40 bands through 40 Oz. To Freedom, with samples and/or covers from The Grateful Dead, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin NWA, The Specials, The Beastie Boys, KRS-One, The Minutemen, Bad Religion, Toots and The Maytals, George Clinton, Ray Charles, Public Enemy, George Gershwin, The Descendents, Kurtis Blow, James Brown and The Clash…just to name a few. With Rome, you are starting with Bradley and Sublime as an obvious major musical influence, but fairly quickly you can find Rome on youtube covering artists like Jason Mraz, Sean Kingston and T.I., so needless to say the musical influence is vastly different. Sublime was formed in 1988. That was also the year that Rome Ramirez was born.
So it is still with much trepidation that I approach this latest incarnation of Sublime, anxious to see what will happen with an ingrained love for the band that was, and a hopeful optimism of a band that will never be again.