SunFest turned 40 years old this year, and the West Palm Beach institution slowed down accordingly within its new middle-aged bracket.
What had previously been “Florida’s largest waterfront music and art festival” was a five-day event for most of its existence, but downshifted to four days in 2018. On May 5-7, SunFest presented the first three-day format in its history — on two stages rather than its customary three — and didn’t even feature visual art vendors.
It was a case of art, or rather the lack thereof, imitating life in an area where drinking and dining now masquerade as commercial art forms. The former art vendor area, and south stage location, was now “The Eatery,” and there were more than enough bars, floating or otherwise, for youthful fans. Most flocked north to the main Ford Stage for closers in a glorified duo of deejays (The Chainsmokers), the sensitive, stoner surf-pop of Jack Johnson, and a literal Vegas act in The Killers, home to the world’s most ego-exuding front man in Brandon Flowers.
Closing the Ideal Nutrition Stage at the Meyer Amphitheater on Sunday was veteran Los Angeles alt-rock-meets-hip-hop quintet 311, a band whose literally long, strange trip is nearly as lengthy as that of SunFest itself.
311 formed in Omaha, Neb., where it burgeoned through a series of independent recordings and numerous stage shows, but the band’s rock/rap hybrid sound was better suited to L.A. than the plains. That city was home to seminal veterans the Red Hot Chili Peppers, active since the mid-1980s, and a couple other formidable funk/rock acts that were being seeded in their wake there, Incubus and Rage Against the Machine. 311 headed west to join them in the early 1990s.
But unlike those bands, the Nebraskans peaked early creatively on their first two major-label releases, Music and Grassroots. 311 then changed producers (ditching legendary former Jimi Hendrix engineer Eddy Offord) and rose to commercial stardom on an up-and-down, hit-producing (“Down,” “All Mixed Up”) self-titled third release in 1995. They’ve ridden the crest of that wave ever since, leaning more and more into reggae — yet another former form of protest music that turned into a modern, sway-inducing Caucasian audio acid-for-the-masses — in the process.
To close SunFest’s southern stage, vocalist/guitarist Nick Hexum, lead guitarist Tim Mahoney, bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills, vocalist/turntable artist Doug “S.A.” Martinez and drummer Chad Sexton leaned heavily on those tracks, and their subsequent sub-par hits from the 1990s which, to be fair, did make them bigger stars. Yet the quintet has largely become a nostalgia act status through the 21st century.
The hits kept coming early. “Beautiful Disaster,” from the 1997 album Transistor, opened with the guitar harmonies of Hexum and Mahoney, followed by “All Mixed Up,” the single that started the group’s subsequent neo-reggae stampede when it climbed the charts in 1996. The contrast to earlier 311 material was inadvertently made immediately thereafter.
“SunFest, how are you feeling?” Hexum asked. “Happy Cinco de Mayo weekend. Here’s a little Latin tune called ‘Do You Right.’”
The track from Music burst with comparative energy, inspiring and animating Mahoney, as did “Lucky,” a showcase for Martinez — who serpentined between manning the turntables and emceeing out front throughout the show — from Grassroots. Mahoney was on fire all night, even on otherwise faltering later tracks like “Beyond the Gray Sky” (from Evolver in 2003) and “You Wouldn’t Believe” (from From Chaos in 2001).
Wills’ vaunted slapping abilities surfaced on another hit, “Come Original,” from the 1999 release Soundsystem. He wouldn’t fare as well during his sloppy, unaccompanied solo showcase, an odd choice for a musician who’s always fared better soloing over patterned vamps by the remaining players. Ditto Sexton, who played a series of predictable unaccompanied exercises before additional drums, cymbals and gongs were set up out front for the other four band members to join in. What might’ve been a percussive orchestra instead turned into a cut-rate version of the theatrical show Stomp.
Mahoney’s intro to “Amber,” a milquetoast pop/reggae hit off the From Chaos album, animated the crowd. As he did most of the night, Hexum didn’t play guitar, instead leading the audience in inane “whoa-oh-oh” chants. Oddly, it seemed to be what everyone there had been waiting for, since many dispersed afterward, perhaps heading to the north stage for The Killers’ set.
To offset its fading relevance, 311 has embarked on business ventures like its Caribbean Cruise (the seventh installment of which sailed out of Miami the day after SunFest ended), self-titled organic CBD products, and a “Come Original” India Pale Ale. So the branding performers often use SunFest as a convenient stop en route to multiple Caribbean islands. Yet they’ve also proven a middling live act during previous SunFest performances (like 2009, 2015 and 2018) and even back to their heyday — from a local stop on the 1996 H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) Tour with the likes of Blues Traveler, Rusted Root, and Lenny Kravitz — to their own sub-par 1998 recording Live.
Still, a lineup that’s been intact for more than 30 years (Mahoney joined in 1991; Martinez in 1992) is admirable. Wills’ funk bass lines and Sexton’s militaristic attack have remained consistent, and Mahoney and Martinez added necessary edge via their inclusion. Rhythmically, 311 can match up with those bands. Like Incubus, they even have someone manning the turntables in Martinez, and Mahoney’s solos (which often sound like a more versatile version of Carlos Santana) and accompaniment are on par with the Chili Peppers’ mercurial John Frusciante, if not Rage’s incomparable Tom Morello.
Hexum, as he did during this SunFest set, remains the wild card. He’s a capable guitarist, but has a monotone vocal delivery that’s offset by Martinez’s intermittent, energizing raps. Hexum doesn’t have the singing voice of Incubus’ Brandon Boyd, the rapping ability of the Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis, or the outlandish presence of Rage’s Zack de la Rocha.
And as 311’s primary composer, Hexum’s liberty-taking vocal phrasing and sophomoric lyrics — like repeatedly invoking the band’s name, as if listeners don’t know who’s on stage or their listening devices, when he’s not reciting his hobbies, habits, theories, opinions and grudges — can leave those listeners waiting for the creative Mahoney solos and staccato Martinez blasts. On Music and Grassroots, the instrumental efforts were strong enough to counteract such shortcomings. Since then, the band leader’s more noticeable weaknesses have been the hex on 311’s slow cruise away from creativity.
“This summer is going to mark 33 years that we’ve been a band,” said Hexum as the clock wound down at the Meyer Amphitheater. “We want to dedicate this one to all the old-school 311 fans.”
The rollicking “Down” featured Martinez letting the remaining concert-goers, who knew the words by heart, sing many of the vocal lines. The hit that preceded “All Mixed Up,” it was basically 311’s last single that had a rhythmic rock blast instead of a predictable, reggae-infused pulse. The band’s commercial appeal went up in the process, yet its original creative quotient has been going down ever since.