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Sublime Debut New Singer at SmokeOut Festival Despite Nowell Family Protests

October 26, 2009 8:50 AM ET

They weren't billed as headliners on Saturday's SmokeOut Festival, which rolled out pot-friendly acts like Method Man and Redman, Cheech & Chong, Kottonmouth Kings and hosts Cypress Hill, but there's no doubt Sublime, featuring surviving members Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh — with 21-year-old Rome Ramirez positioned where the late Brad Nowell once stood — were a major draw for the estimated 15,000 fans who trekked out to San Bernardino, California, this weekend.

It was only the band's second stage appearance in the 13 years since Nowell died of a heroin overdose, and before Ramirez strummed the first chord, the performance was fraught with controversy. As Rolling Stone reported, days earlier, representatives for Nowell's estate filed suit against Wilson, Gaugh and Ramirez, citing trademark infringement for using the band's moniker on the SmokeOut lineup. In a statement released October 21st, the estate declared, "It was Brad's expressed intention that no one use the name Sublime in any group that did not include him, and Brad even registered the trademark 'Sublime' under his own name." But a District Court judge allowed the show to go on, and Wilson and Gaugh shot back with their own missive, which read, "While we all mourn the passing of our brother and bandmate Bradley Nowell some 13 years ago, Sublime still has a strong message of hope and love... Brad's heirs apparently do not share this vision."

Fortunately, it seemed the fans, many who were too young to have experienced Sublime while Nowell was alive, remained blissfully unaware of the drama, and as the threesome hit the stage in the early afternoon, the crowd welcomed them back with open minds and hearts. Ramirez dedicated the first song, "Get Ready," to Nowell, then competently led the amphitheater sing-along through classics like "Santeria," "Wrong Way," "Date Rape," and "What I Got," all the while keeping the vibe jovial, you could even say celebratory. "I was skeptical at first, but it was awesome," said 22-year-old Josh, who hails from Sublime's hometown of Long Beach. "Sublime was the reason I came to SmokeOut. I hope they keep it going." Dennis from Hawthorne, 22, was also impressed by the 2009 version of his favorite band, though he believes the trio "shouldn't be named Sublime without Brad." Stephanie from El Monte, 22, offered her expectations going in: "That they wouldn't replace Brad with someone who wasn't worthy. I had heard good things about Rome, but I didn't want to listen. Then today, I was blown away."

That sentiment was shared backstage following the band's set, where promoter Chang Weisberg proudly declared victory over the naysayers. "My take is that Bud and Eric are two-thirds of a group called Sublime and, at the end of the day, if they want to go out and perform music that they helped create, they have every right to," he said. "Those guys waited 13 years and they found someone in Rome that can help them celebrate the music they created with Brad. They're not trying to replace Brad, it's not a reunion or a reformation, it's about feeling good playing what they all created and what fans want to hear. I think Brad is proud looking down today."

"It's a reformation, they finally found a guy in Rome that they feel confident enough to bring Sublime back," Cypress Hill's B-Real said in YouTube video posted when the lineup was announced. "If you're an AC/DC fan, Bon Scott passed away, people thought, 'What are these guys going to do.' ... Those guys could have gave up ... but they found a guy that they felt could carry on that legacy."

Pennywise's Fletcher Dragge, who's in a similar name predicament following the August exit of singer Jim Lindberg, couldn't agree more. "This has been long overdue," he said. "Brad's gone, he's not coming back, but if you believe in reincarnation, then they totally pulled it off. Should they change their name? Fuck no. Bud and Eric earned that spot up there. As big a part of Sublime as Bradley may have been, they were there for him and they're not trying to do anything but pay Bradley homage. So what are we talking about? Money? Politics? He said, she said? We're talking about 20,000 people that heard Sublime tonight, that never saw them live, sang every fucking word and had a great time."

Wilson, Gaugh and Ramirez did not consent to any interviews during SmokeOut, possibly because legal proceedings are still ongoing with a hearing scheduled for November 3rd. Weisberg also acknowledged a potentially long battle over use of the Sublime name. "I'm sure it's something that's going to carry on," said the Guerilla Union founder, "but the precedent was set: the guys played, no one stopped them, there was no injunction, there wasn't any sheriff stopping them — he was too busy dealing with all the potheads."

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