311, The Wailers, Pepper-- reggae, funk, rock--and contact highs
Benjy Portnoy
8/13/2006 9:43:13 AM

In the fog of smoke in St. Louis’ the Pageant (very little of it from any tobacco-based product) was a guy hanging out near the bar, with a sincere, honest grin across his face. His face dotted in three-day stubble. Except for his neck brace, he seemed like anyone else at the club, jammed to capacity for the band 311, with Pepper and the Wailers. Someone nearby leaned over and explained, “That’s John. He fell off the roof of a three-story building…and lived.”

A tumble like that would shatter most people. So how did this unlikely hero stay a survivor?

John said, “I landed on my feet.”

A better mantra doesn’t exist for Omaha, NE’s 311. After close to 20 years, several high-charting singles, and a slew of gold and platinum records, they’re still headlining amphitheaters. Where most bands would have crashed into obscurity after a couple albums, the band’s legions of die-hard fans have stayed plugged in to their ongoing exploits.

The dedication of the 311 audience sometimes rivals that of Phish or Grateful Dead. Fellow show attendee Gunther made it known to NT that this was his 27th 311 show. Why?

“It’s all about the ‘unity,’ man,” he said.

Apropos, this being one of the only club stops on the “Unity 2006” tour. Sharing the bill with ex-Marley backers The Wailers and neo-ska upstarts Pepper, 311 still packs the same energy and bounce they’ve delivered at any other point in their career. And they still seem to be having fun while they do it. Although the show’s a little more sophisticated and professional these days, they still make you feel as though you’re going to hang out with your friends’ band.

As the band’s song catalog has expanded, they’ve remained adept at blending the old with the new. Leading off the set with “Beautiful Disaster,” they wound their way through mostly their hits from over the years and a few cult fan favorites like “T&P Combo.”

A frequent accusation the band often faces is that they tend to get comfortable in a certain style and don’t deviate from that sound, most often led by crunchy, funk-punk guitar rock against a half rock, half reggae beat. They’ve slowly pushed out of that comfort zone, especially with the quantum leap of new record Don’t Tread on Me. Although the reggae/rock roots are still undeniably present, they’ve been a little more daring in crafting the song structures and vocal melodies. “Frolic Room” maintains a reggae or dub rhythmic undertone but bounces between an uppity pop tune and a straight-ahead rock jam. And with “First Straw” (a new track from the recent Greatest Hits compilation), the guitar almost taps into latter day Beatle psychedelia.

If this show is any evidence, fans are digging the new material as warmly as the older stuff. Cheers were as loud for singles from Don’t Tread and Greatest Hits as anything else. And their recent cover of The Cure’s “Love Song” (which hit #1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart) was just as well received.

For some, the most attractive aspect to the band is its rhythm section. Bassist P-Nut is still one of the funkiest bass players in his own particular postal district. And Chad Sexton continues to marry his fierce drum corps chops into everything he does. It’s not unusual that he gets a solo in the second half of the show. The band switched it up toward the end of the solo, however, by bringing out four floor toms and accompanying crash cymbals on which everyone in the band played along with the beat. Even with the choreography they put into it, they still looked as though they were just having a great time.

For a band to have the longevity and perpetual popularity after so many years, it truly is a testament to the notion that these cats have nine lives. They’ve survived through grunge, ska, nu metal, boy bands, neo-punk and any other trend in an industry that’s as fickle as they come. To be able to keep coming out on top, putting on fine shows, and “landing on their feet,” 311 is doing something right.

Rounding out the night were The Wailers and Pepper. The latter originally hails from Hawaii but has been paying L.A. dues since ’99. After recording in various instances with Steve Kravac (Less Than Jake, MXPX) and Ron St. Germain (Bad Brains, Living Colour, 311, Tool, Sonic Youth, Sound Garden), they had the tour’s opening slot. Interesting fusion of ska, reggae, and even heavy rock at times – Pepper clearly had our attention. A band to watch.

The Wailers consists of the remnants (and likely some new additions) of Bob Marley’s backup band. Fun reggae from the real thing, although it sort of felt at times as though this was “cruise ship ensemble” of reggae standards. They whipped through what you’d expect to hear from this type of band, although they did it quite well. Included was a beautiful treatment of “Waiting in Vain,” a beautiful Marley gem.

It would have been a treat to have heard some new material instead of just covering the surefire hits. If they did so, they didn’t take the time to point it out. At any rate, they did justice to the legend. Although, some would argue that these folks helped create that legend.

A fun night indeed of reggae, funk, rock, and contact highs.

Photo: Benjy Portnoy


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