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Word up: Nick Hexum of 311.

photo:Joe Putrock

Still Better than Papa Roach
By John Brodeur

311

Washington Avenue Armory, Nov. 22

In the early ’90s, as sad sacks like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were (like it or not) becoming the voices of their generation, the music world had plenty of room for something sunnier, more life-affirming, or, at the very least, fun. Enter 311, a group whose every note was aimed at breaking down the barrier between mind and booty, making it safe for middle-class white kids to dance to reggae . . . or something like that. They’re actually into their 15th year, believe it or not; the quintet (drummer Chad Sexton, bassist P-Nut, guitarist Tim Mahoney, rapper Doug “S.A.” Martinez, and singer-guitarist Nick Hexum) took a considerable amount of time to break into the mainstream. “Down,” the massive hit single from their 1995 self-titled release, was actually the third single from their third album, and acted as a shout-out to a die-hard fanbase earned through years of constant touring.

311’s novel-at-the-time hybrid of rap, rock, funk, and reggae clicked with an enormous population of music fans who had grown weary of the kill-yourself music that had run rampant for years prior. But theirs was a brief reign. While similar bands like Phunk Junkeez and Shootyz Groove (to name but a few) ran in the same circuit but came up short, newer groups were perfecting the formula (souring the grapes, rather), helping to roll in the long, dark cloud of nü-metal. A few years later, 311’s composition was aped almost exactly—subtract the reggae, add some scowling—by the diamond-selling Linkin Park. Seriously, there’s more of a parallel here than you might think: For starters, neither band’s frontmen can actually sing.

So where did that leave the Omaha contingent? Judging by their performance at the Washington Avenue Armory on Nov. 22, they remain blissfully unaware that anything has changed over the last decade. That was good for the roughly 2,000 teenagers and 20-somethings that turned out for the band’s first-ever area gig, but not so promising for those expecting any amount of growth or transcendence from 311 or their performance.

The band played their entire hand within the first 20 minutes: A noodly, psychedelic groove morphed into the plodding rap-rock of “Welcome”; some funk and energy was added for “Freak Out”; “Offbeat Bare Ass” and “T & P Combo” continued in that vein; things slowed down a bit on the reggae ballad “1-2-3” before picking up again for “Don’t Tread on Me.” This would be the pace for the remainder of the evening. With no visual element to draw fans in (Hexum’s version of performing was to make goofy hand gestures and say “hey y’all!” from time to time), the show was reliant on the music—not necessarily boring, but predictable as hell and, at times, remarkably dated.

Or just plain bad. Decent hooks shone through from time to time, but they were buried in otherwise dreadful songs (“Large in the Margin,” “Creatures for Awhile,” anything from the Transistor album). Hexum and Martinez have become better singers, and the group better songwriters, over the years, but they still can’t resist the two elements of their sound (rap and funk) that have kept them from realizing their potential. This is unfortunate, as the high points came during the rap- and funk-free fare: “Amber,” easily one of the better tunes in the 311 oeuvre, was an enormous crowd pleaser; new single “Speak Easy” was surprisingly melodic and buoyant; this year’s not-half-bad “Don’t Tread On Me” was a siren’s call between two tired-sounding decade-old numbers. (Their cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong” was conspicuously absent from the setlist. Too bad—it’s their finest moment, and they should’ve played it.)

For a band who, conceptually, should offer something for everyone, 311 somehow manage to build walls around their sound, presumably in the name of audience preservation. If only they could rise above their past and allow themselves to grow naturally, they might avoid their current fate as one long, drawn-out footnote.


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