From the moment Garden Amphitheater opened its doors to live concerts last year, all of OC was suddenly interested in taking a trip to Garden Grove. For a city previously ignored by the populous as a nightlife wasteland, this venue known for Shakespeare and the Strawberry Festival suddenly began to make a name for itself–venue organizers even managed to draw tens of thousands of people to Garden Amp’s grassy lot beside the venue for the High and Mighty Festival featuring headliner Sublime with Rome. As cool as that was, there’s something about seeing a Sublime show–the rawness, the unpredictability, the community vibe spilled over from the band’s native Long Beach–that made the band legendary before the rest of the world ever heard of them.
Whether you were there for that era or experienced it second hand, the spirit of an original Sublime show seemed alive and well last Friday at Garden Amp during the band’s benefit show for the Nowell Family Foundation. The stacked undercard of bands featuring reggae rock staples The Simpkin Project, Micah Brown performing with a full band, an acoustic set by Jakob James Nowell and Roots of Mine set the vibe for the early show that started at 4 p.m.
By around 8:30 p.m., Burritos took the stage to a packed crowd that rushed down from their orange amphitheater seats to smash against each other in the narrow pit in front of the stage as beach balls and blunt smoke hovered in the air. The band, billed as a “Tribute to the Music of Bradley Nowell,” began with the mission of helping the family of the late Sublime frontman fund Bradley’s House, a rehab program for struggling musicians.
Over the past several months, the band banged out hits from the classic Sublime catalog mostly culled from its first three albums with a smattering of material from their fourth, breakout 1996 self-titled release. As you can imagine, there’s no shortage of bands who were both influenced by this material and even more who are always eager to cover it. But while many of the Sublime’s songs have become pop music standards, it’s Burritos’ ability to simultaneously execute the material note for note (even triggering immortal samples like the police radio dispatch on “April 29, 1992”) while having fun and letting it all hang out that makes them something to watch.
Before the band came out, Nowell’s father Jim came up to address the crowd, thank them for their support and give Burritos his official stamp of approval before launching into their rendition of “Garden Grove.” Feeling the release of the crowd being able to sing those opening lyrics stored on the tip of their tongues all day long definitely felt sublime to say the least.
For frontman and guitarist Casey Sullivan, formerly of OC reggae rock band Seedless, this feels like a job he was born to do. Being a longtime Sublime fanatic borrowing from Nowell’s sound in his own work, his guitar chops and voice are a stunning, effortless match for the material. The the sun-tanned soul and easygoing charm of Nowell’s personality came through in Sullivan’s delivery as the band featuring guitarist Alex Vo, bassist Katie Jo Sullivan (Casey’s wife), saxophonist Adrian Olmos and Seedless drummer Shay Pino rage behind him on songs like “Doin’ Time,” “Same in the End,” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned” while the crowd dutifully shouted every word.
Even for a band that nails all of Sublime’s material with plenty of added flair from Vo’s sizzling fretwork, Pino’s raucous (sometimes one-handed) drumming and Olmos’ wild sax riffing, it’s the energy of the crowd that really makes these shows come alive. Throughout the band’s 14-song set, beach balls batted back and forth through the stands, while the mosh pit the erupted during “Seed.” At one point, a member of the crowd jumped up and started wandering around with a joint on stage. Watching Katie Jo politely decline to inhale was definitely a highlight of the show. Above all, the connectivity of everyone who crammed up close to see the band despite the seats in the amphitheater that definitely made the show one hell of a trip.
Nate Jackson is the gatekeeper to your dreams of local dive bar stardom. If he writes about you, expect your band to be offered at least one more drink ticket than the rest of the bands on the bill. Get his attention with some groovy tunes and he might just do it. Then, boy will you feel special.