It’s hard to re-create the spirit of an era more than two decades after the fact, especially when that era was a pre-internet one of free-form cultural hodgepodge, unregulated backyard parties and nasty heroin addictions.
But if you closed your eyes for long enough at the Bradley Nowell 20-year memorial show at Alex’s Bar last night — and let the upstrokes move your bones as much as the spastic drumming made you mosh — it was almost as if all the good sounds from Sublime’s creative heydey never ended.
Making the throwback even eerier: Brad’s son Jakob, a bearded Brad look-alike who was only 11 months old when his father overdosed, headlined the night with his own metal-ish reggae band, LAW.
The night had me thinking about things that were invented in the time between when Sublime first started playing backyard shows in Long Beach and when Jakob Nowell headlined his dad's 20-year memorial show at Alex’s Bar: Alex’s Bar, Long Beach Dub All Stars, flat-billed hats, pro-Trump bros, vintage Sublime shirts, OxyContin, Snapchat, smartphones, dads scrolling through Instagram, Lagunitas Pils, Coachella, memes, Ice Cream Ian, The Ziggens photo magnets and Jakob Nowell.
That said, it wasn't until after a full day of good old fashioned singing, smoking weed and drinking around Nowell’s headstone at a cemetery in Fountain Valley that Alex’s Bar began to fill up with everyone from superfans who had traveled out of state for the occasion to dozens of Long Beach ska-punk legends. In interviews, the younger Nowell has called the latter group his “ring of wizards,” uncle-types who have influenced him and guided his band’s sound along the way.
Miguel Happoldt, Sublime’s behind-the-scenes producer and the so-called Gandolf to Jakob’s wizard ring, opened the night with his latest outfit, Perro Bravo, a back-to-basics reggae-influenced punk band that proves you can make a lot of good noise with a simple three-piece and some effects pedals. They played skank-worthy covers like “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and Sublime’s own dub-smash “Slow Ride” along with originals like “Surfside,” about the Seal Beach community where half of Brad’s ashes were scattered.
A cameo from Tim Wu on saxophone briefly turned Perro Bravo into a poor man’s Long Beach Dub All Stars, but the band’s lasting impact on the show was its channeling of Sublime’s ability to go full-punk long enough to get a gnarly pit started, then pull it back with a bouncy reggae beat, calming everyone down to an almost lethargic gait.
It was a reminder of why blending reggae, punk, ska, metal, hip hop and everything else into a giant vat of “music” — as Brad Nowell, Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson did with the help of Happoldt and drummer/DJ Ras MG — so easily became a universally appealing sound. It was the antidote to the hardcore punk aggression of the ‘80s and to postmodern life in general, the only way to keep sane amidst chaos.
Falling Idols played a punk-leaning set of song requests lifted from the singer’s text message inbox before Brad’s favorite band, The Ziggens — though a little more grey than when the local “cowpunksurfabilly” group first inspired the Sublime singer to embrace his inner genre-defying freakiness — rolled through its most popular high-energy songs, occasionally donning hats and throwing down that signature cheeky banter between jams.
It was nearly midnight before LAW took the stage and given that the average age of the crowd was about 35, it’s no surprise that half of the sold-out show had already gone to sleep. Those who left, though, missed out on a mildly awkward, but totally endearing Alex’s Bar debut from frontman Jakob and his metal-nerd bandmates.
Yes, Jakob’s voice is as pliant and recognizable as his dad’s. Yes, he also sort of kind of looks like Brad. But Jakob is every bit his own man, even if he’s still figuring out how to present it on stage (current look: confident baby giraffe). It’s clear he loves Tool and Mastadon more than the deep reggae cuts his father used to find at Kulcha Beat Records, and the band’s sound veers between talented teens on a melodic hardcore kick and songs so far back to the place where punk and ska first met that they could easily be unreleased, early-days Sublime tracks.
Jakob is also more theatrical than Sublime ever tried to be, taking showmanship and vocal nods from uncle-wizards like Mic de la Torre, aka Mic Dangerously from Zen Robbi, who produced LAW’s latest, Mild Lawtism (a new music video, filmed, appropriately enough, at a backyard party, was released this week).
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To appease the masses, Jakob performed two Sublime songs, but stayed clear of any radio hits. For his final song, as if to further prove he is not interested in picking up precisely where his dad’s laid-back legacy left off, Jakob headbanged across the stage to a shred-gnar of a guitar riff, took off his slouchy boots in the process and threw them around the stage. He then loosely tied the microphone cord around his neck and collapsed as he screamed out the final notes.
You may not be able to re-create an era, but you sure as hell can pay your respects to one. RIP Brad. Jakob’s got it from here.
LAW plays again at DiPiazzas Friday night with Mike Watt and The Ziggens.