I still celebrate it, I suppose. I can’t let a calendar year slip by without wistfully tuning into a few of those iconic albums on March 11. In high school and college, it was my annual Rio Carnival.
See, 311 was my first “favorite band.” I was sitting in the back of Paul’s mom’s van in late 1999, when he put Soundsystem on (or, rather, he sort of demanded that his mom slide the CD into the van’s, uh, soundsystem) and played Livin’ and Rockin’. It was incredible stuff. From there — 6th through 8th grade — my buds and I compiled a collection of the band’s output until that point (Music, Grassroots, 311, Transistor, Soundsystem). I still think those are extremely well constructed albums — little worlds unto their own. I never stopped listening, and I never stopped flabbergasting the hilljack bullies on the bus with what I termed “really fucking good music.” (Who knows what nonsense pop music they were listening to.)
I stuck around the scene for years — to date, really, I guess — and I found plenty of highs and lows in their subsequent albums. From 2004 to 2015, I saw the band maybe 10 times in Cleveland and Columbus. I traveled to Las Vegas with some of my best friends in 2012 for the band’s 311 Day shows. That’s where the story really begins, maybe.
For a long time, I had reveled in 311’s inherent “corniness.” There’s an overly positive, earthy, communal thing throughout a lot of their lyrics, but the messages are strained through Nick Hexum’s sort of weak writing skills. The idea is that 311 and their fans are a big family — “the excitable ones,” colloquially — and that the rules are bent a little bit within these walls. The outside world can’t touch us in here, in this land where we all sing in unison the choruses to Beautiful Disaster, Feels So Good, Homebrew, etc. But I started to get a sense at some point that the band was mailing it in. (During their 2009 summer tour, they didn’t change their setlist from night to night — save for one or two songs. I think this is when I started noticing something was wrong. The band was resting on its laurels — the hits, in a sense — and pandering to the fans. The element of surprise was out the window, and the band delivered what they thought the fans were seeking. The fix.)
From there, in subsequent tours, and leading up to my main point, the band returned to sort-of-diverse setlists. They played deep cuts. The 2010 summer show was the best one I’ve seen from them. I remember distinctly feeling a sense of sonic flow and harmony when they pulled out Eons and Hostile Apostle.
But we arrived in Las Vegas two years later for The Show. By that point, my interests had long ago fallen into the jam band scene — traveling around the Midwest and East Coast for Phish shows, primarily — which kind of wrecked more conventional rock ‘n’ roll shows for me forever. I needed the serendipity and mystery that music holds. I needed spontaneous twists and heartfelt, hypnagogic trips. My soul, you see, my soul needed nourishment.
The band mailed it in so thoroughly that I felt like a freshly licked postage stamp in the crowd. I was shit-housed, brutishly hungover after a few days on The Strip with my pals. (Devin drove in from Phoenix, not to attend the shows with us but to provide ample tequila, which, in my case, did not serve a benefit. I physically died at least twice during that trip. I lost my wallet at New York, New York. Devin, flying in a haze of memory, karate-kicked Stribz in the ribs at some point and barked like a mad dog for hours afterward. The bruise was surreal. We laughed mindlessly at the Luxor buffet, an eerie pseudo-restaurant in the basement of a pyramid in Nevada. etc., etc. The trip was supremely fun and strange — don’t mistake my 311 critique for anything other than what it is.)
But I felt like the band was pulling “rarities” and “deep cuts” out of their ass for the sake of it. I caught a bunch of the songs that I had been chasing for years, but it felt cheap somehow. Like a rigged carnival game, where every child wins a goldfish but that’s not really the prize you wanted.
It took me three years to see the band again. Their 2015 show left the same taste in my mouth.
Hell, I’ll still pull out my copy of Grassroots later today. That’s one of my all-time favorite albums. I’ll be at the Cleveland show in July, barring a schedule conflict, probably. I still love 311.
There’s a long-lost photo of me, somewhere in the family archives, where I’m standing outside the band’s Omaha, NE, recording studio, aka The Hive. We were coming home from a trip to Yellowstone, and we spent a night in Omaha on the way back. This was probably 7th grade. All of my 311 CDs had the same address printed in the liner notes, so we dutifully traveled into the inner-ring and located the hallowed ground. It was just a house, from the outside. But I could sense something special in the driveway, on the front steps, just beyond the windows. (No one was home.) The photo exists somewhere, and I remember Being There.