“Ain’t got no time to grow old,” Bradley Nowell sings on one of the more celebrated songs in Sublime’s catalog, “Badfish”. There’s an element of intrigue added to that utterance on the recent 3-Ring Circus: Live at the Palace – October 21, 1995 for two reasons. One, it’s mumbled and flippant, which contrasts brilliantly with his idea to pick up the pace of the upstrokes that his guitar shouts, a minor but noticeable improvisation from the tune’s original incarnation, and man, does it sound good. And two ... well, Nowell would die of a heroin overdose about seven months after the show at the age of 28, giving about 5.3 tons of weight to that lyric as it lives on through the band’s legacy.
It’s a legacy that sits prominently at the center of this latest live CD/2-DVD set. Lord knows there’s been more than a deluge of material released after the singer died, but 3-Ring Circus feels just a little more authentic than its predecessors. Stand By Your Van, the group’s only other notable live release, might sound better, yes, and the performances might very well be tighter or more professional, sure, but the truth is that this 27-track release captures the trio in all its uncomfortably sloppy glory better than anything else that they have ever released (including the off-the-cuff acoustic compilation that hit shelves after Nowell’s untimely death).
In fact, some of it’s even embarrassing. “Foolish Fool” is a skeleton of a song here as its three-and-a-half minutes sound more like a disorganized band practice than anything. It gets so bad that even the singer himself feels the need to apologize to the crowd after the train wreck’s fire finally settles to ashes. “Thanks for bearing with us – we’ll see you here next year. We’ll have it right then,” he tells the crowd, and it breaks your heart just a little. “Caress Me Down”, another new one at the time, flirts with the same kind of disaster, but eventually perseveres, amounting to a pretty good (but admittedly rough) early version of one of the band’s best songs.
However – and somewhat miraculously – not once do these missteps affect the release in any negative way; rather, they come across as some of the best examples of how charming both the band and its leader could be. “What I Got”, “Santeria” and “Wrong Way” were bona fide hits, with a capital H. To hear a trio that could have been playing to tens of thousands of people on a nightly basis wander through a truckload of songs in a shitty, little L.A. club gives the entire collection a seductiveness that eventually proves impossible to shake.
Plus, Nowell and his boys could back the hype up whenever they wanted to. 3 Ring Circus begins with a knock-out combination of quickly presented favorites that set the frantic tone fabulously. The trio’s take on Bad Religion’s “We’re Only Gonna Die for Our Arrogance” has always been great fun with its tempos varying on a dime, accentuating precisely how loose the entire set would end up feeling. From there, it dives into “Don’t Push”, “Garden Grove” and “Right Back”, a golden trifecta that is worth the price of the release alone. The most fascinating of the bunch is “Grove”. As the tune that would eventually kick off the band’s most popular and slightly iconic self-titled record, it’s always been a wonder how it may have translated within the parameters of a live setting. The answer? Simple, but effective.
What would have been the pre-“What I Got” hits are all here, too. “Saw Red” turns the ska to 11 and while shaky, it’s also a reminder of how great a punk band Sublime actually were. “40 Oz. To Freedom”, from the group’s best record that shared the same name, is a tiny bit indecipherable, but still endearing nonetheless. That said, once the distortion kicks in, all bets are off. One of the best covers Nowell ever dreamt up was Toots & the Maytals’ “54-46 Was My Number”, and while it receives a turbo introduction, it evens out for what becomes a rather ruckus interpretation of the classic.
Fan favs “Date Rape”, “Smoke Two Joints”, “D.J.s” and even the aforementioned “Badfish” all show up and each time they do, it’s like reuniting with an old friend. “Date Rape” provides extracurricular entertainment as the song pauses midway through the performance after bassist Eric Wilson breaks one of his strings. Meanwhile, “Joints” wins the award for Most Provocative Moment as the group stretches out and expands the lengths of their typical reggae/punk short-song formula. It forces listeners to ask what might have been, had Nowell won the battle with his demons.
Even so, we are now far enough removed from the lightning rod that was Sublime that we can look back on these things with enough perspective to allow us to focus more on appreciation than we do tragedy. 3-Ring Circus is delightful on almost every level (and though the DVD adds almost nothing, it sure is interesting to see the group perform on the cusp of releasing what would end up being a smash record). You don’t have to be a die-hard fan to warm up to these chaotic, flimsy performances of mostly songs that only die-hards would even know. There is an inherent energy to it all that should be both admired and celebrated with or without revisionist history.
Indeed, Bradley Nowell wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t have time to grow old. 3-Ring Circus: Live at the Palace – October 21, 1995, if nothing else, reminds us that as fans, we sure wish he was.