Album Review: Sublime – “3 Ring Circus – Live at the Palace, Hollywood, CA”

There’s no shortage of live Sublime material out there. Most of the box set “Everything Under The Sun” is live in some form or other, a deluxe reissue of Sublime’s breakthrough 1996 record contains a bonus disc, again mostly made up of live cuts. Finally “Stand By Your Van” is the 1998 live album released two years after Bradley Nowell’s untimely death.

Although Sublime’s popularity was on a steady rise pretty much right out of the gate, the great tragedy of the band, other than his death itself, has always been that Sublime’s globe spanning fame came just a few short months after Bradley accidentally overdosed on heroin in his hotel room during a ’96 tour the band were on.

Given that, at this point, the band have been so popular for so long, their songs etched into the pop cultural landscape so resolutely, it’s hard to imagine that the creative force behind the band didn’t even get to partake in any of it. But it’s all part of the legend now. A sad, ironic story to be passed down from one generation of music lovers to the next.

Undoubtedly, a big reason for this timelessness is how fresh the band’s material sounds even now. Pluck ‘What I Got’ or ‘Santeria’ or ‘Wrong Way’ or anything really, from their early to mid-90’s inception and slide them into today’s radio rotation and there isn’t a damn soul who would question its placement. To say these songs have aged well is an understatement. They haven’t aged at all. The only thing that makes them feel old in any way is the fact that you’ve been listening to them since before your balls dropped (sorry, I don’t know the female equivalent for balls dropping, but the sentiment goes for girls too). But even then, that’s more about you feeling old than the music.

Now we’ve got a reincarnation of the band with a different singer. This is never a good idea, folks. When the main creative force in a band dies, the band is dead. That’s all there is to it. Nirvana understood this, so did Joy Division. It looked for a number of years like Sublime did as well. Nowell had such a unique voice. Such a gift for songwriting and performing every one of them like it was the last song any of us would ever hear. Some people are born to do certain things. He was born for this.

Capturing lightening in a bottle can be tricky. Sitting at home watching magic happen isn’t the same as watching it happen before your eyes, in the midst of heaving, weaving waves of a sweaty ocean. So watching Sublime’s “3 Ring Circus” on DVD, or listening to it in your car or on the bus or whatever, you know you’re getting a watered down version of the event in question.

As such, “3 Ring Circus” doesn’t sound all that great. It’s a recording of a club show in Hollywood in ’95 and whether it’s the recording that stinks or the show that sounded that way at the time, I don’t know. Truth be told, “Stand By Your Van” is a better sounding recording than this. Don’t let that deter you though, “3 Ring Circus” isn’t unlistenable and in level of quality exists somewhere around the good bootleg area.

It also contains one hell of a setlist that covers a hefty swath of material from “Robbin’ The Hood” and “40 Oz. To Freedom” and while it was a little early for them to be performing some of the songs that would eventually become hits after Brad’s death, they do play a couple tracks that would pop up on that posthumous ’96 self titled release. They also find time in their 80 minute setlist to throw in some b-sides and covers of songs by Bad Brains, Descendents, Greatful Dead, Bob Marley, Toots & The Maytals and Bad Religion.

All in all it’s a pretty comprehensive batch of songs.

Bradley performs the songs with a great deal of passion and has the uncanny ability to make them all sound spontaneous and on the spot, even though none of them are. All the while Bud and Eric keep the groove going behind him, two very talented performers in their own right.

This review is more specific to the audio release, but you also have the option to buy “3 Ring Circus” in a couple of DVD formats.

I also watched the video of the show and unless you’re a completist in regards to Sublime’s catalogue, I would advise against it.

Like an Oliver Stone movie, but without a shred of skill, the video for the show was shot on a variety of cameras and in a variety of film formats. As such, you’ll get colour for a couple songs, then grainy black and white for a couple, then something else, then something else.

The whole thing looks like a bad imitation of an 80’s MTV music video. Lingering too long on the crowd, spinning shakily around Brad while he’s playing, spending an awkward amount of time on a gay couple dancing and kissing and hugging on the side of the stage. It’s just all really juvenile and annoyingly distracting from the actual performance. Which, again, is great. Eric smoking a big fat stogie (blunt?) through most of the show, Bradley’s beloved Dalmatian Lou dog wandering around on the stage, and his aforementioned impassioned performance, if only they’d just sit still with one damn camera and leave it be.

You won’t ever hear me complain about there being too much Sublime music out there, but the shameless barrage of repackaged and re-repackaged Greatest Hits compilations that flit out into the world every couple years do nothing but dilute the name of the band and its legacy. As such, whenever I hear of a new Sublime release, I’m powerless to hold my right eyebrow in place and prevent it arching its back towards the heavens.

“3 Ring Circus” is worth listening to for the setlist, the performances and just because it’s Sublime. You really don’t need any more reason than that. The sound quality is a little rouge around the edges but certainly listenable.
But if it’s a show you want to see, rather than hear, I’d recommend tracking down the documentary/live compilation DVD “Stories, Tales, Lies & Exaggerations.”

4.5/5  (less for the DVD)


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