Sublime with Rome
July 30, 2010
Orange County Fair -
Orange County and the rest of the world was robbed when Sublime singer Bradley Nowell overdosed in 1996 just two months shy of the band's multi-platinum, self-titled release. Fifteen years later, several songs from the major-label debut remain in heavy radio rotation. During the Sublime with Rome set on Friday at the Orange County Fair, I asked myself if the original band members' decision to emerge from the ashes (after enlisting the help of a 22-year-old fan named Rome Ramirez to fill the shoes of the late Nowell) was a good choice. From the opening chords, the answer wasn't immediately apparent.
When Ramirez, along with bassist Eric Wilson, drummer Bud Gaugh and saxophonist Todd Foreman took the stage, they immediately launched into "Date Rape," one of KROQ's most requested songs of all time. With Foreman's sax and Gaugh's kick drum ferociously accenting the opening salvo, the crowd's rapturous response was Pavlovian.
Singing along to every lyric, they became particularly vocal on the line "He was butt-raped by a large inmate." Near the song's end, Ramirez bust out Nowell's riotous solo, faithfully playing the neck-burner note for note. The song portended the rest of the evening's entertainment. The four men played nearly 20 songs, many of them hits, all of them winners that nicely represented the song catalogue. Each tune was pitch perfect and delivered with little fanfare or in-between song banter.
All the while, Rome closely emulated his late hero and admirably performed even the solo on "40 Oz to Freedom," a lead Nowell overdubbed excessively in the studio making it impossible to re-create live. Ramirez's style was fluid, confident and effortless--characteristics Nowell possessed as well, when he was sober enough to perform. And whether scatting during the smoldering psychedelic rock of "Under my Voodoo," busting rhymes on the rap laden "Don't Push," or the ad-libbed portion of the Grateful Dead cover "Scarlet Begonias," Ramirez shined vocally.
But while I had to marvel at his ability, there was something incredibly sad about witnessing him lead the charge. He wasn't Nowell, and he never will be. The collection of songs the band played on Friday originally welled up from the mind of a troubled drug addict who synthesized an incredibly disparate group of genres through pure inspiration. Nobody impersonating him can recreate the music--no matter how talented he may be. And though each of the four performers has chops 'til Tuesday, none, even the youthful Ramirez, is a dynamic performer.
Watching each musician occupy the same space for most of the set made me pine for the days when Sublime might have played a smaller venue, such as the now defunct Ice House in Fullerton where chaos would reign in the cramped and less supervised general admission environment.
The large audience also made me think about what would have been, had Nowell lived. There were a few fleeting moments during the encore when Ramirez effectively channeled the late singer. They occurred during portions of songs when his voice utilized a delay. On the tune "Summertime," which heavily samples the George Gershwin song of the same name, there was a breakdown when Ramirez softly sang "Take this veil from off my eyes/ My burning son will someday rise." As his voice rippled across the levels and terraces of the amphitheater, for a brief moment, it sounded like a call and response between him and Nowell's ghost.
Pondering whether or not Sublime with Rome was a good idea, I looked around at the masses singing along to every song. Many of them were too young to remember the day Nowell died, many hadn't even been born. Bubbles floated above their heads and popped against beach balls bouncing off of outstretched hands, the skunky smell of ganja was thick in the air. A woman from the event staff danced in the aisle. I had my answer.
The Crowd: A smattering of the very young and not-so-young. Old time skaters donning hats emblazoned with the Long Beach logo, neo-hippy girls with flowers in their hair baring their potbellies and tramp stamps, teenage girls and guys on dates and aged hipsters in pork-pie hats.
Personal Bias: During my years at Fullerton College, I listened to a cassette of 40 Oz. to Freedom so much, the tape was worn to a string.
Partial Set List:
1. Date Rape
2. Get Ready
3. Smoke Two Joints
4. April 26, 1992
7. Myage (Descendant's cover)
8. Don't Push
9. Garden Grove
10. Right Back
11. New Thrash
12. Wrong Way
14. Greatest Hits
15. Bad Fish
16. Let's Go Get Stoned
17. Promised Land
18. 40 Oz. to Freedom
19. Under my Voodoo
20. Scarlet Begonias (Grateful Dead)