After hosting a handful of tribute acts and regional bands at drive-in concerts last summer, the Alameda County Fairgrounds will be the scene of two Sublime with Rome concerts Friday and Saturday. The SoCal band, an offshoot from Sublime fronted by Fremont native Rome Ramirez, will become the first national touring act to perform an in-person ticketed event in the Bay Area since the start of shutdown orders in March.
In a conversation on Friday, Sublime co-founding bassist Eric Wilson said that he’s excited to play to fans in any form possible, but he’d prefer normal shows and doesn’t consider the pandemic as a danger to himself or concertgoers. Sublime with Rome is one of numerous bands that has performed physically distanced drive-in concerts since the pandemic began in March. But he also pointed to a concert the previous week at a Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, bar that has been mired in controversy last summer for its flaunting of COVID-19 regulations. The performance was attended by many who didn’t wear face coverings, and went off without a hitch, he said.
“I wasn’t scared at all,” Wilson said when asked if he was nervous about playing to people without masks. “I was happier than I could ever be, like, in the last few months. It’s exactly what I wanted to be doing.”
Additionally, Wilson said he believes the various worldwide shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders were motivated by more than health concerns; primarily, an attempt to strip people’s rights.
“I’m sure you know that, like, the original Woodstock concert was done during a pandemic,” Wilson said, in response to a question about his thoughts on Smash Mouth playing to thousands of unmasked fans in South Dakota and recent comments by Van Morrison that physically distanced concerts in the COVID-19 era were based on “pseudo-science.”
Wilson referenced the 1968 “Hong Kong Influenza” H3N2 outbreak, which resulted in 1 million to 2 million deaths worldwide. “My thoughts on all this is that it’s really just—it has something to do with, I guess you could call it a new world order or something like that, you know, taking our freedom away…”
The Alameda County Fairgrounds concerts were rescheduled from mid-August after fires erupted statewide and choked much of the state. Sublime with Rome, which includes drummer Carlos Verdugo, was able to play a drive-in show in Ventura that same week, which Wilson said he enjoyed.
Other acts that have played the drive-in concert series in Ventura include Third Eye Blind, Fishbone, Kehlani and Andrew McMahon.
“It was definitely different, but it was really cool as long as you have a good stereo system in your car,” he said. “If you have a little transistor radio, it probably wouldn’t sound that good because they didn’t have a PA. But for the times we’re going through right now, it was great.”
At the Ventura concert, he said, fans were able to leave their vehicles to stretch, at which point many stayed outside in their allowed areas. Attendees seemed to do a great job of distancing from each other near their cars.
“It was really cool. It was different, but for what it was, we were just happy to be able to play,” he said.
“It’s kind of [a] tailgate party or something, but the football team is right there.”
At least at some of the Alameda County Fairgrounds drive-in concerts, attendees have also been allowed to leave their vehicles so long as they wore masks. The concerts have been a hit with attendees. Vital Events, the producer of the Sublime with Rome concerts, has released numerous rules that attendees must follow.
Masks covering the nose and mouth must be worn at all times when outside the vehicle and not eating or drinking. Physical distancing is mandatory everywhere outside of vehicles, including concessions and restroom lines. Attendees who don’t follow the rules and others in their party can be ejected from the shows.
The shows will have sanitized and monitored restroom facilities, a drive-through bar and restaurant with digital pre-orders for contactless pickup, and mandatory distancing between vehicles. Attendees will be allowed to sit in pickup beds or folding chairs and blankets so long as they stay in their assigned car spaces. Dancing will also be allowed as long as it’s within the assigned space.
The sound will be broadcast via FM radio to supplement live audio, and there will be video screens ensuring all cars have a view. Wilson said he felt “flabbergasted” that Sublime with Rome would be the first national touring act to perform an in-person ticketed event in the Bay Area.
Angel Moore, the Alameda County Fair’s vice president of business development, said that various checks will be in place to keep attendees and workers safe at the upcoming concerts. The organization rented the site to the promoter, Vital Events—a company Moore said she’s worked with in the past and has proven to do its job well. Vital Events is responsible for following all federal, state and local COVID-19 guidelines, and ensuring that workers and attendees do the same.
“We take that incredibly seriously,” Moore said Monday morning.
There will be private security, Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies and ambassadors on-site to remind attendees about physically distancing from other groups and wearing masks. There will also be signage posted throughout the property.
Back-of-house workers also have to wear masks.
“They have the ability to set the tone,” Moore said. “Our No. 1 goal is safety.”
Moore said the Alameda County Fair has also had to quickly pivot to ensure other rules are followed. During at least one drive-in concert earlier in the summer, a band has asked fans to come to the front of the stage to dance. But that’s not allowed for safety, and there’s a 15-foot buffer between performers and fans. So now there are barricades and sheriff’s deputies on standby to ensure that rule is followed.
“We live in a different world now,” Moore said.
When asked whether the Sublime with Rome members have talked about taking any special precautions, Wilson said he was mostly interested in performing to fans.
“I just want to please my fans, and I want to feel, you know, like I have a purpose here on this planet,” he said. “And the way I do that is by playing in front of people that want to hear me.”
Wilson continued: “It’s like everybody on the whole planet that can’t do what they love to do right now … [for] whatever reasons. It is supposedly COVID, and other agendas, I’m sure.
“But, we’re just totally stoked to be able do that, and we had the pleasure of playing in the Ozarks last weekend there. And that was like a regular show, and I don’t think people were even wearing masks. They take the temperature coming into the show and stuff, but it went over really well, and nobody was getting, like, too close, or like, you know, stage- or crowd-surfing or any of that kind of stuff.
“I mean this country needs to open back up, because we’re not performing. Music heals the souls and makes people happy, and what’s going on right now does the opposite.”
Sublime with Rome has released three albums since forming in 2009, the most recent of which being 2019’s Blessings.
Wilson also spoke about recording new music with his other band, Spray Allen, last summer, which he hopes to release in the near future. He described the music the band is working on as modern psychedelic.
“I believe it’s like the best music I’ve been involved with in years,” he said. “The album is being mastered like right now, and we did like 20 songs, and it’s a whole different thing than Sublime. … It’s very uplifting. If you want to hear the same reggae that Sublime did, you’re not going to get it out of that. But as far as the diversity and the creativity, it’s 150-percent like the Sublime that people love.”
Wilson said he hopes to tour more this year with both Sublime with Rome and Spray Allen.
“I plan on being busy all the time. I’d like to be somewhere on the other side of the planet or anywhere where music lovers want to hear us and have a great time,” he said. “People are dying; they really need music here. The world needs music. We need love to get through all this darkness. That’s the only way.”
Editor Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report. Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.