When Rome Ramirez was about 6 years old, Bradley Nowell, lead singer of Sublime, died from a drug overdose. That was 1996. Now it’s 2010 and the 22-year-old finds himself stepping into Nowell’s shoes as the frontman of a resuscitated Sublime (with the appendage “with Rome” added after Nowell’s family complained).
A Sublime fan since he was a kid, Mr. Ramirez is now playing in front of crowds like the one that gathered at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday, most of whom probably never saw Sublime play when Nowell was alive. As a capper to the day-long KJEE Summer Round Up, it was a fine enough way to see the sun set.
Sublime’s hits ? “Santaria,” “Wrong Way,” “What I Got” ? are the pop-reggae songs one invariably hears while eating at Kahuna Burger (this incarnation of the band declined to navigate the more skate-punk, genre busting tunes in their back catalogue).
The audience drunk, stoned, dudes, chicks had for the most part only the recorded versions to serve as a comparison to Mr. Ramirez’ game attempt to fill in, which he managed to pull off. The crowd approved.
Opening with “Date Rape,” Sublime’s blistering ska satire, the pit immediately whipped into a mosh circle. What a difference 14 years makes ? back then, nobody would have been seen in the middle of the maelstrom of elbows and chests trying to take a photo of himself (for Facebook, no doubt), but Saturday night, there somebody was, and all the best to them. They followed up with “Get Ready,” and the pit subsided into skanking for the moment.
Bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh maintained the same tight rhythm section they did at the height of the band’s popularity, and out of the group, it was Mr. Gaugh who really owned the night. His fills, hi-hat work and dexterity are akin to the skill found in progressive rock bands, and he managed to never get in the way of the dancing. Mr. Wilson was fine, a bit boring to watch ? he smokes and gazes about, standing in front of his stack of amps ? and with a muddy sound that made individual notes hard to pick out. Completing the group was a mystery fourth member that even Internet searching fails to name ? this thin, bespectacled man played brass and keyboards, filling in the arrangements found on the records. He even whacked a mean cowbell occasionally.
Mr. Ramirez doesn’t try to match Nowell’s voice mannerisms, but he and the band are faithful to the music, playing “Badfish,” “Greatest Hits,” and “STP” to the crazed delight of the fans. One could make the case that “STP” was better live in 2010 than the original, as much as it sounds like Living Color jamming with Fishbone.
Yet, by going from obscurity to huge crowds such as these, Mr. Ramirez still has some catching up to do. His stage presence is negligible, his vocals sometimes muddy. When he does engage, he still acts the incredulous fan. Many times on Saturday he looked like he was fumbling the lyrics, and not on the tongue-twisting fast numbers. Often Mr. Ramirez looked like he was playing catch-up to where he knew he should be, looking down at his chord-making hand as if to check.
And of the weedy guitar solos, the less said the better. It was a bit like watching a roommate playing Rock Band well enough to score points needed to advance to the next round. At the end of the set, Mr. Ramirez spun around, grabbed a smoke and walked off stage with the band. Mr. Gaugh at least doffed his hat to the crowd, and suddenly it was over, save the encore. Yes, we know the will-they-won’t-they game of encores has lost its spark, but it was odd to just watch someone go offstage and wait.
They returned, of course, blasting through “What I Got” (with a heartfelt “Rest in peace, Bradley!” offered to the crowd) and closing with their cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” and “Santaria.”
So will this new version of Sublime last? After Saturday, it’s hard to say.
Opening band Iration, straight out of Isla Vista’s party band scene, played inoffensive but samey West Coast reggae with one or two ideas stretched out into 13 songs. You can almost smell the cannabis and see the beer pong tables. The band was slick and professional and plainly having the time of their lives playing in front of a hometown crowd as big as all their previous local gigs combined.
“We never thought we’d be at a place like this,” said the lead guitarist. “We love you holy (expletive)!!” Which kind of summed everything up, really.