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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Second Coming of Sublime

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Bradley Nowell never lived to see his empire. The Sublime singer overdosed on heroin in the spring of 1996, just two months before his reggae-punk trio released the self-titled album that would become its breakthrough, selling 5 million copies and yielding a succession of alternative-rock hits.

After Nowell’s death, Sublime’s label, Geffen, moved quickly to meet the sudden demand for a band that no longer existed, releasing posthumous albums throughout the ’90s, but interest in Sublime luxuriated long after the band vault was exhausted. With the group still ubiquitous on alternative radio and college campuses today, a cottage industry has thrived by recycling the Sublime songbook, led by tribute bands like Badfish and 40 Ounces to Freedom.

Perhaps it was only inevitable, then, that the surviving members of Sublime would carve out their own share of that market, despite drummer Bud Gaugh’s initial assertion that “the band died when Brad died.” Last year Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson began performing under the Sublime moniker with a young new singer and guitarist, Rome Ramirez.

Nowell’s estate objected immediately. “It was Brad's expressed intention that no one use the name Sublime in any group that did not include him, and Brad even registered the trademark 'Sublime' under his own name,” they wrote in a statement. After a court agreed, Gaugh and Wilson changed the band moniker to Sublime With Rome.

Though it’s hard to begrudge Gaugh and Wilson for playing their own band’s music—after all, they did toil on the road for nearly a decade with Nowell before his death prevented them from enjoying the fruits of that labor—Sublime With Rome induces the same reflexive cringe as all bands reunited despite a key member’s death. Nowell wasn’t just the voice of Sublime; he was its reason for being. It was his pet loves for punk, dub, ska and hip-hop that birthed Sublime’s sound; his squalid songwriting that gave the band its bite; and his vulnerability that turned even the group’s sloppiest, most throwaway numbers into something more intimate—so intimate that it can seem distasteful hearing them sung by somebody else.

Substitute singer Rome is a dead-ringer for Nowell, his voice soft, boyish and unabashedly achy. At 22 years old—born in 1988, the year Sublime formed—he is a demographic nod to the band’s permanently young following, an affable frat boy with a backward baseball cap and an acoustic guitar he probably breaks out quite a bit at parties. He’s a cleaner guitarist than Nowell, not nearly as rough around the edges. A widely viewed YouTube video of him strumming a cover of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” shows he would have fit nicely on this past season of “American Idol.”

With Rome, Sublime has begun writing and recording new songs. In May, Gaugh said he hoped to finish “one or two of them for a late-summer radio release.” That may sound optimistic, the suggestion that Sublime could return to the radio just that easily, but there’s actually precedent. The reggae-rock band The Dirty Heads has topped the alternative music charts for nine weeks running with a summery, distinctly Sublime-esque hit called “Lay Me Down.”

The song’s trump card? Guest vocals from Rome.

Sublime With Rome plays an 8 p.m. show at the Rave with openers Matisyahu and (who else?) The Dirty Heads on Wednesday, July 14.

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