Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Local-eyzed: 311 Tear It Up in Mass (IGM)

Headliner: 311
Opening Act: Alien Ant Farm
Date: Wednesday - November 12, 2003
Venue: The Palladium (Worcester, MA)
Price: $29.50

It's no secret to anyone who knows me: 311 is my favorite band. They have been since I was in middle school. Now that I'm in college, nothing has changed much in terms of my musical disposition. Sure, 311 have released four albums since my early scholastic adventures, but I am still as dedicated to them and their music as ever. That being said, many of you may ask yourselves how can I possibly be objective and honest in a concert review of my favorite band? I find it rather easy to be objective and honest in this regard. Let's face it, I know all of their music inside out and I've seen them too many times in concert to count. I've seen them when they put on a good show and I've seen them when they're a bit off. That said, let me just get it out of the way: 311 is amongst the best live musical acts in the industry. Period.

Despite their rabid fan following, a commonly-known fact amongst the musically modest and the self-declared (and otherwise) aficionados is that most music critics don't like 311. They never have, even in the mid-90s, when radio-friendly hits like "Down" and "All Mixed Up" saturated both the airwaves and MTV. But most music critics do agree that if you must hear or expose yourself to 311 (God forbid!), your best bet is to see them live.

I tend to disagree with this statement, however. Why? Because 311 has such a versatile collection of songs and albums. There is a plethora of material contained on their three independent releases (the albums that came before their first major release, Music, in 1993), which is when they truly started to formulate their rap-rock hybrid sound. That hybrid sound, being that it draws from so many styles of music--from rap to dancehall and more traditional reggae and then combining it with rock--can either turn you on or turn you off. Basically, you're either going to love 311 or you're going to hate them, there is rarely any in between.

I do agree with the critics in that if you want to find out whether you love (or hate) 311, seeing them live certainly can't hurt. That's the only way you'll hear brilliant live renditions of their songs, plus you'll get to see and feel their live, raw energy on stage, as well as share in the positivity of the people in the crowd simultaneously.

But enough about the politics surrounding the music of 311. What about the show? Here's the deal: Worcester, Massachusetts is a little more than an hour outside of Boston. Since I go to Northeastern University, which is located near the Prudential Center landmark, a friend of mine, Ramon (also a fellow diehard 311 fan, I might add) and I took the Orange Line inbound from Ruggles to Back Bay, and then took the Commuter Rail out to Worcester with a few stops along the way. It was a fairly mild day for mid-November New England, and we arrived in Worcester around 5:30 that evening.

Walking from the train station to the Palladium took about ten minutes. On a hunch, my friend and I walked around to the back of the venue. Upon coming around the other side, lo and behold, we ran into none other than 311's rapper and DJ extraordinaire, Doug "SA" Martinez. After shaking his hand, getting a picture with him and having him sign my Grassroots t-shirt, my friend and I got in line. We finally gained access to the venue a little after seven o'clock.

Ramon and are I always excited when we're about to see 311, but unlike the times in the past that we've seen them where mediocre bands open up (like 2 Skinnee J's, Something Corporate, Incubus or G. Love and Special Sauce), this evening a rather solid band was in the opening band slot. It was none other than Alien Ant Farm, which was a most welcome surprise as this was the first time in a long, long time (not since 311 took the stage with Zebrahead in late 2000) that I could remember such a cool opening act. Naturally, that added to the excitement of the event. Unlike most of the fans in line that were dissing Alien Ant Farm, Ramon and I were very excited to hear them. Ramon has been into Alien Ant Farm since the days of their independent releases, I'm talking pre "Movies" and "Smooth Criminal." I, on the other hand, got into Alien Ant Farm as a result of his influence, and had become quite the admirer, especially of the new material on their latest release TruANT.

Anyway, back to the show. Once inside, we got up close to the stage, and when I say "up," I mean right there. We were all of a foot from the gate surrounding the stage, and maybe four or five feet from the stage itself. Eight o'clock rolled around, Alien Ant Farm came out, equipped with their new guitarist wearing a cowboy hat with a neon Alien Ant Farm logo on the front. After everyone was set, the drums began, and Alien Ant Farm broke into "1,000 Days," which I was extremely excited to hear, it being my favorite Alien Ant Farm song and all. After a rousing rendition of that, they went straight into "Drifting Apart," followed by "Movies," and then into a few slower tunes before breaking it down with "Goodbye" and calling it a night.

Perhaps the highlight of the short Alien Ant Farm set (which was apparently due to the fact that the new guitarist had yet to learn all of the band's other material) was when lead singer Dryden gave love to me and my friend during "Goodbye." By "giving us love" I mean that he reached out and gave each of us a firm and meaningful pound, dissing everyone else who was simply trying to touch him because he's a 'singer leaning into the crowd and that's what I'm supposed to do' thing. He saw that Ramon and I had been singing along to all the lyrics of their songs, that we appreciated the music, and weren't trying to reach out and grope him. In turn he appreciated us back, which was cool.

After the set, the Alien Ant Farm the techs came onto the stage and disassembled the drum kit, took away the amps, et cetera. The 311 techs then came on and quickly set up the amps and pedals, hooked up SA's turntables, took the cover off of Chad Sexton's light blue drum kit, and before we knew it, the small venue exploded as the band took the stage while the "Are You Ready" intro blasted over the speakers.

Nick Hexum (vocals/guitar) walked calmly up to the mic as the intro closed, and Tim Mahoney started the riff for "Freak Out" on the guitar. This classic track from Music is one of their best songs to hear live. It was used to start most of the 311 shows this past summer on their Unity Tour, and it's been used on every date this fall to open their shows as well, so it was a predicted number. It doesn't mean it didn't get me rockin', however, 'cuz it did. As the guitar came to the first verse and SA calmed down his rap-over, Nick began in with "Let the game begin if you wanna f@#k with me, you cannot disturb the course of T and P and C and D and me." This line, famous to all 311 fans, literally signaled that the concert had truly begun.

Song-wise, the show was, in the words of 311, "Sick Tight." From "Freak Out," they rolled right into a solid set of a songs, beginning with one off of the new album, Evolver, called "Reconsider Everything," and then into the 1999 hit "Come Original." From here, things went into the normal "311 concert mode" as you heard a few of the normal 311 tracks (stuff like "Amber"). What I was very excited about, however, was that 311 played three tracks I had never heard live before: "Silver," "Running," and "Don't Stay Home," the latter of which Nick Hexum dedicated to Dryden of Alien Ant Farm. "Running" was especially well-played, as the dual guitars of Nick and Tim worked in and out of each other brilliantly, just as they did on their 1997 album (and my personal favorite album of all time), Transistor.

Thankfully, 311 paid plenty of attention to their mid-90s material. A total of four songs were played off of Music, another four off of 1994's Grassroots, and four off of their 1995 release,The Blue Album, as well. What truly impressed me was that the band played three songs off of the often-neglected Transistor:"Light Years," "Running," and "What Was I Thinking," whereas songs from the more popular Soundsystem and 2001's From Chaos, which have been seemingly over-played at many shows I've been to in recent years, only had a combined total of four songs played off of them. As for the band's newest album? Well, they played five songs played off of Evolver, including the orgasmically good "Beyond the Gray Sky," which speaks of the suicide of Nick Hexum's best friend in high school.

Throughout the show, the musicianship was strong. P-Nut played slap-bass and picked along as he always does, breaking it down on "Nutsymptom" before "beat[ing] that thing!" on "Feels So Good." Chad Sexton wrecked the percussion with some slick beats and fills, breaking it down with his trademark five minute drum solo (which the whole band now partakes in, each equipped with a floor tom and crash cymbal) during "Applied Science." Tim Mahoney worked the guitar beautifully on solos ranging from "Beyond the Gray Sky" to rocking it with simple-yet-effective riffs on "Other Side of Things." He also worked wonderfully off of Hexum during the songs the two shared guitar duties on, such as "Reconsider Everything" and "Running."

After twenty-two songs, 311 got off-stage, only to come back for a two-song encore. It seemed that they had neglected two of their hit singles, and decided to break them both out. First, Tim cranked it up a notch as SA and Nick belted out "Creatures (For A While)," the first single off of their latest release. Then they ended the show with their biggest hit to date, 1995's "Down," in which SA preached "check the technique, 311 in MA" instead of the usual lyrics, "311 in LA." It was a nice touch to show that 311 knows how to bring it down to a local level.

As much as I enjoyed the show, there were a few negatives, however. What detracted from the atmosphere during the entire show (and especially in the beginning) were two things. First of all, the venue was over-sold. The Palladium is a small venue (which is what 311 has exclusively played since their 1999 Soundsystem tour), and selling at least 200 more tickets than you probably should have doesn't help the situation. It's hard enough to move, jump, and enjoy yourself when you're as close to the stage as I like to be, but when you have too many people there to begin with it's even worse.

Additionally, 311 shows are great because of the unified energy of the crowd. I felt it a bit, but I didn't feel it enough. The volume of "new" 311 fans was far too high. You can tell when a 311 fan is "new" because he only gets excited when the latest album's songs are being played. Too many of those at this show. I think getting into 311 at any time is great, but having "veterans" at the show just adds to the unity, and that's something this show lacked.

So, was this the best show I've ever seen? No, it was not. I've seen 311 too many times live to really call this show the best I've ever seen them, and while it was a great, energetic show, the venue and lack of true fans there detracted greatly from the experience. The music was, as always, extremely solid, and the opening act was one of the best bands that 311 has ever toured with, but the crowd was too full of meatheads (Worcester, unlike Boston or New York City --where I usually catch them--isn't a college town full of true-blue 311 fans) that didn't know any of the songs and were just there to start pits, and detract from the fun of the real fans there. And, as I mentioned, the venue was too small and they over-sold the show. I just hope 311 refrains from traveling to the suburbs anymore and sticks to the major cities like Boston where they'll get more of their hardcore followings' love.

With the negatives out of the way, the show was strong in its own right. It was one of the strongest 311 set lists I've ever seen live, their musicianship has never been stronger, their energy was great, and the fact that I met the awesome (and very friendly) SA Martinez didn't hurt either. They broke out three songs that even I, a 311 concert veteran, had never heard live, and gave love to an album (Transistor) that they usually don't bother to explore in lieu of newer, more popular material.

It had its highs, and it had its lows. But the 311 experience remains as strong as ever. Catch them live if you can, even if you think you don't like them. It's an experience that just might change your opinion on such an influential band with an amazing amount of longevity and creative energy.