Concert Review: Sublime with Rome at Stone Pony Summer Stage: July 13, 2013
I don’t understand Sublime. Or, to be technical, I don’t understand Sublime with Rome. There are many things about this band that confuse me, and all were on display at the show I (partially) saw on Saturday night at the Stone Pony Summer Stage.
Full disclosure: While I once liked Sublime, I’ve never been a huge fan. I was fortunate enough to score a pair of free tickets to the show and Sublime is exactly the kind of band that I enjoy just enough to see for free, but not enough to pay for (as opposed to these bands playing the Summer Stage on August 2, whom I would not see if you started a Kickstarter campaign to fund my tickets, food and beer). When their third (and final) album was released (the self-titled Sublime) I enjoyed the popular songs – specifically “Santeria,” “Wrong Way,” and “What I Got” – just like any dutiful teen. Over time, though, those songs became relics of the late ’90’s, falling in to the nostalgia bin with other post-grunge rock hits like the songs from Green Day’s Dookie or Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. (The only song that I still appreciate is “Date Rape,” which transcends the genre that Sublime occupies.) Those albums aren’t bad – they aren’t like the bubble-grunge and pseudo-punk of the era, your Sugar Rays, Smash Mouths, Gin Blossoms, or the band that opened for Sublime with Rose, Pennywise – but they don’t stand the test of time either. When lead singer Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose in 1996 (before Sublime was released) it was no doubt tragic, but it was not a loss to the musical community on par with the passing of Kurt Cobain two years prior or Layne Staley’s six years later. Nowell’s rock star fame actually reached its peak in the year after his death, on the strength of the aforementioned singles. Perhaps the most comparable death from an impact perspective was that of Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon in 1995 – a premature end to a promising career. In the late 1990s, it would have been impossible to conceive of Sublime continuing as a thriving band, headlining a national tour as they are somehow still doing in 2013.
But are they? Officially, Sublime with Rome is not Sublime. In 2009 the surviving members of Sublime (Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson) reunited and tabbed a 20-year old fan, who sounds uncannily liked Nowell, to be their new lead singer. After their first gig, the estate of Nowell sued to protect the name “Sublime” and after winning an injunction against Gaugh, Wilson and new singer Rome Ramirez, the band changed its name to Sublime with Rome.
But that’s just a name, and what’s in a name, really? With these guys, plenty. Rome Ramirez may sound like Bradley Nowell, but that’s where the similarities end. The ska punk band from Long Beach, California does not exist anymore. Sublime always had hints of reggae in its sound, but at its core it was a surf rock band. Judging solely based on one show, Sublime with Rome is a reggae band with surf rock influences. My words here may sound the same – and they are singing many of the same songs – but note the syntax. The changes are subtle but unmistakable, as they are with the band. Here’s what one reviewer wrote following their 2010 Stone Pony Summer Stage appearance:
Walking around and taking in my surroundings, I noticed everything that should encompass a stereotyped Sublime show. There was the stand selling glass pieces, kids and adults with dreadlocks, the red, yellow, and green colored…everything, the Bob Marley shirts, the bandana’s holding back long, dirty hair, the unnecessary sunglasses that were probably hiding blood shot eyes, and let’s not forget the aroma of marijuana that seeped out of the crowd’s pores.
I can assure you that in the three years that have passed, nothing has changed except perhaps the faces in the crowd. Unlike other ’90s bands making their way across the country, Sublime with Rome appeals to an audience much closer in age to its lead singer Ramirez (23) than lone remaining original member, bassist Wilson (43). In stark contrast to shows I’ve been to recently – Mudhoney (review here) and Courtney Love (review here) – the crowd at Sublime with Rome ranged in age from mid-teens to low 20’s. Sublime with Rome isn’t a nostalgia act – it’s high schoolers and college kids that adore this band. Moreover, the crowd wasn’t absorbed with the music, as you might see at a reunion show of a near twenty-year-old band. They were absorbed with themselves – surfing the crowd (in another unusual twist, nearly all the crowd surfers were female), taking pictures, dancing with their friends sometimes with their backs to the stage … I may have missed about half of the two hour set, but I saw enough to know that the Sublime with Rome scene is one I’m completely unfamiliar with.
Most biographies of Sublime end sometime after the death of Nowell and well before the reformation of the band in 2009. (The official Sublime website doesn’t even acknowledge the new band. You can find a Bradley Nowell stand-alone release in their online store, but not Sublime with Rome’s 2011 album, Yours Truly.) Sublime with Rome simply is not Sublime; that said, it is so much more than a good cover band. Ramirez has established his own sound (albeit with Nowell’s voice) and appeals to an entirely new generation of fans. He’d probably get booed off the stage in places like New York City, Los Angeles, and other major metropolitan cities, yet they will easily sell out decent sized venues in the right locales, like the thirty or so cities on their current tour. Kansas City … St. Paul … Cincinnati … Asbury Park … West Palm Beach … Tampa … wherever there are teenagers and a little marijuana, Sublime with Rome will rock the house.
If I were to sum it up in a lot fewer words, I’d note that in looking up reviews of Sublime with Rome’s new album earlier today, I came across this from CoS:
The best advice for this one is to remember that Sublime is a dead band. Sublime With Rome is its own creature, and Yours Truly is a very decent jam album. It’s no Sublime record, but you knew that from the name, right?
The writer may have been talking about the album, but he could have been talking about the live show, the band in general, or even the entire Sublime with Rome experience. This is not your older brother’s Sublime – this is the new and (to that older brother) not-quite-improved Sublime with Rome. It’s not my jam, but for the people at the show who weren’t around for the Nowell years, this is a very decent jam band.