[21 July 2009]
311 is, if there is anything still material in this increasingly corrosive business of music, one of the most consistently dependable and formidable bands for this very important reason: The group will always put on one hell of a live show. Having witnessed the band in live settings for over a decade now, very rarely could I claim any serious let down or unforgivable sense of disillusionment on this point. 311 is a band fashioned to thrive and flourish in a live setting. One of its best assets is its distinctly palpable ability to relate to its very devoted following, to feed off the crowd’s vibe as it were. The band performs excellently in such a context—311’s bare-bones, reggae-rap-rock groove is freely allowed to take over, and indeed many dubious, perhaps average songs on record tend to become quite phenomenal when they are performed live.
In Kansas City, 311 once again put on a formidable live show, but by no means did this gig, ebullient and potent though it may have been, meet 311’s own high standard. Nor did the band sustain its semi-immaculate image and reputation for concert playing. The show was undeniably decent and, in fact, awe-inspiring at times, but on the whole it was mostly lacking: 311 mistakenly decided that thoroughly hawking its latest album, Uplifter, was more important than playing its more notable, recognizable, and flat-out superior songs.
Instead of playing both rare and acclaimed tunes (“Who’s Got the Herb?”, “Homebrew”, “Freak Out”, “Unity”, “My Stoney Baby”, “Visit”, etc.), 311 foolishly chose to play a total of nine songs from Uplifter, a positively absurd and inconceivable number, especially considering the relatively—compared to the entire 311 catalog—low aesthetic quality and outright unabashed, formulaic poppy mediocrity of several of these tunes (see “Hey You”, for example). I would certainly feel quite different if any of the newer songs competed in any thinkable way with any one song from 311, Music, Grassroots, or the underrated Transistor.
Admittedly, bands must be given free reign to play anything they please, but deciding to play so many songs from an average record smacks of shameless pandering to the whims of a youth-oriented market. It seems the business of music has taken firm hold upon the art of music. It is all too likely that many of the youthful folks at this gig had never heard of 311 until the Soundsystem-era (1999), but that could be an overstatement. Still, the bottom line is that the band neglected to play several of its objectively better songs in order to sate the pop musical tastes of a demographic more suited to the likes of the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus than to 311 in its mid-1990s rap-rock, not pop, heyday.
Still, there is nuance here, and it would be imprecise to not concede that several Uplifter songs suspiciously became crowd favorites, but that was seemingly 311’s objective to begin with. “Never Ending Summer”, “India Ink”, “Daisy Cutter”, and “Jackpot” stood out as relative high points. In fact, the crowd reacted favorably to most of the new songs, a truly confusing scenario when one considers that Uplifter hit stores just eleven days prior to this gig. Moreover, such a reaction seemed, in part, illusory: Many people simply cheered blindly and indiscriminately at every song played. (Cannabis-friendly songs—from earlier but recent albums—such as “Amber” and “Beyond the Gray Sky” only added fuel to this disoriented flame).
Singer Nick Hexum, uniquely dressed from head to toe in virgin white, helped further this suspension of disbelief and subtle theatre. During such sweet and mediocre songs like “Daisy Cutter” and “Jackpot”, Hexum pretended that he was deep amidst the ferocity of a mosh pit at a Sex Pistols show. He danced erratically and head-banged with his whole person. To anyone familiar with 311’s earlier, more intense and heavier-sounding songs, Hexum’s stage behavior in this context was quite laughable, inappropriate, and silly.
It wasn’t a complete washout, though. The aggressive opener “Never Ending Summer” (“These are the good old days”) came across quite well live, as Tim Mahoney’s practiced guitar licks nearly superseded Hexum’s defiant lyrics. “India Ink” was also a bona fide winner, as Hexum’s exotic, reflective lyrics merged well with the song’s intriguing flirtation with metal riffing. But Hexum’s act is largely tame now; tonight he all but ruined a rendition of “Come Original”.
On the other hand, the band’s rendition of Transistor’s “Beautiful Disaster” was unusually evocative and impactful; Hexum must truly love this song in the same way that Mick Jagger apparently cherishes “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Both songs are fairly weak songs on record but somehow always find their way onto set lists. The dynamic guitar interplay between Hexum and Mahoney on “Beautiful Disaster” and also “Down”, among other songs, was remarkable.
Hexum, alongside fellow singer S. A. Martinez, showed more passion and needful verve during the latter part of the show—when the more hardcore and testosterone- and adrenaline-influenced numbers finally were played. The encore may have been the apex of this show; it consisted of the holy trinity of “Omaha Stylee”, “Feels So Good”, and, of course, “Down”. As much as the crowd may have enjoyed 311’s new songs, it truly relished the more compelling, tested, and energetic material of yesteryear. This fact alone is proof that 311 should really be themselves and not try to willingly become another shoddy but popular product.