October 21, 1995 was a historic moment, though its participants may not have known it. Less than a year before Sublime would release their seminal self-titled record, the band rocked a sellout crowd at Hollywoods the Palace. Seven months later, lead singer Bradley Nowell was dead of an overdose, ending the band just before Sublime exploded onto the charts. Now, after the bands storied and prematurely stunted career after their breakout album helped shape the sound of the 90s, and their consequent breakup and reunion with a replacement singer 25 years after Sublimes first show comes their first official recorded concert, 3-Ring Circus: Live at The PalaceOctober 21, 1995.
The 78-minute, 27-song setlist features a comprehensive slice of Sublimes early catalogue, including classics like Badfish, 40 Oz To Freedom, and Greatest Hits. Dont Push is split in half to bookend a lazily confident Garden Grove. The band tears through several stretches without pause, running Toots & the Maytals cover 54-46 Thats My Number straight into Date Rape, the latter of which pauses partway through because Eric [Wilson] broke a bass string, hold on.
The beats on many tracks are slower and fatter than the recorded versions, which is a mixed blessing. Its novel to hear the songs embellished, but for those who grew up on the recordings alone, the exchange robs the live tracks of their energy in places. Were Only Gonna Die For Our Arrogance still rocks hard on its uptempo sections, but theyre such a marked contrast from the fat reggae beats of the intro that they jangle nervously in places, Nowells voice fading into the mix, rather than the masterful, controlled burn on the album. Similarly, Nowells flat delivery on Right Back robs the strategic pauses of their comedic value.
But however casual or sloppy they sometimes appear, the bands irrepressible talent shines through. A super turbo version of Bad Brains track House of Suffering is among the bands best efforts in any setting. Bud Gaughs bullet-fast drumsticks and an ominous guitar rip through the track in truly mindblowing fashion and then the band slides casually into the heavy dub of DJs, as if nothing special happened. Saw Red displays Nowells spitfire vocal abilities over a cheerful ska beat that morphs into a blistering hard rock chorus.
The promised on-stage antics of the press release are less audacious than youd think. One notable moment sees Nowell use the pause in Date Rape to solicit roadies: Right after the show, I want all the volunteers, you can go on the road you gotta be willing to quit your job for about a month, and were leaving in four days You gotta like dogs, too. Of greater interest is the stage banter, like Nowell checking in with his bandmates (Alright, early man?, before opening Arrogance) or getting the crowd to chant his dogs name. Nowell flubs the lyrics on Date Rape one of the bands most popular songs but the songs momentum will not be denied, and by the shouted final she didnt want to take it!, hes sold it anyway.
Were gonna try another new one I aint got any lyrics either, so Im gonna fucking fake it, Nowell confides cheerfully about halfway through the disc. For the modern listener, anticipation transforms into incredulity as the song begins: the distinctive opening bars of now-classic Caress Me Down. Whether the song was then unfinished or Nowell simply forgot the words, the song sadly lacks its Mucho gusto/ me llamo Bradley opening line, and it relies on the infamous mushroom tip verse in place of many of the others. The full studio take is a masterpiece of clever perversion and is, without question, the superior version. But theres a certain charm to hearing the rough draft with knowledge of where the song will go.
In reality, few if any of the songs sound better here than they do in studio, but its the novelty factor that drives 3-Ring Circus, like the little lyrical tweaks in Dont Push or Nowell letting the audience sing certain lines. After a rough moment in Crazy Fool, Nowell apologizes to the crowd: Thanks for bearing with us Well see you here next year. Well have it right then, a gut-punching irony that interrupts the party and quietly inhabits the record. The Palace show sounds like it was fun, but more importantly, fun that a lot of us never got to experience in person. Not to mention the fact that the band producing that fun was on the cusp of becoming one of the most influential bands of the 90s and never got to fully enjoy the climax of their success. For collectors, for hardcore Sublime fansfor anyone who wishes they couldve been there3-Ring Circus is an archaeological treasure.
Essential Tracks: House of Suffering, Date Rape, Dont Push/Garden Grove/Dont Push