The Summer Unity Tour featuring 311 and Matisyahu at The Masonic in San Francisco, CA on August 14th, 2016
"The best band I've ever seen live."
That's a hefty statement, especially coming from someone who has seen at least a hundred live acts over the course of my 26 years. In fact, I don't think I've ever said that about any musician. How quickly things can change.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let me take you to the scene that caused me to utter those seven words that I never thought I could.
It's a brisk Sunday evening and fans are filing into The Masonic, a unique venue that highlights San Francisco's mid-century modernist architecture. The energy is palpable, excitable as you will, but we'll get to that later.
People are coming from near and far for popular rock band 311 as their annual Summer Unity Tour hits Northern California. The group, who melds rock, rap, reggae and funk into a sound that's all their own, is no stranger to the stage. In fact, they have been together and toured for over 26 years, gaining a reputation as one of the "most entertaining and dynamic live bands in the United States."
When the doors open, fans make their way straight to the merchandise booth, hoping to get their hands on the limited edition foil that 311 produces for each show. The posters are a hot commodity for their followers, some who have seen the band in concert numerous times and started a collection.
Looking around at the scene, two things are quickly evident: 311 has a diverse fan base and these fans, or "excitables" as they call them, are loyal and proud. As you scan the room, you are hard-pressed to find a group without someone wearing some sort of gear. From people in their mid-forties, to twenty-somethings, teenagers and kids, the 311 brand made appearances on hats, shirts, hoodies and even tattoos.
There's also a distinct sense of freedom and positivity in the air, as the smell of marijuana wafts to the balcony seats. Before the show even gets underway, security guards try to corral a naked female wearing only body paint as she frolics through the crowd. New friends are made as fans flock to the gates in front of the stage to stake a good spot. Compliments and laughter can be heard over the venue's sound system.
Fans are treated to a familiar face to start the evening as Matisyahu takes the stage. The eclectic vocalist has been a staple on 311's tours in the past and his reggae-hip-hip-rock fusion parallels the headliner perfectly. With shaggy blonde hair nearly covering his eyes, the 37-year-old Jewish artist beatboxes, sings and raps, entrancing the crowd with his passion and talent. It's a spiritual experience, focusing primarily on his voice, with no fancy light show or flashy performance needed.
Despite knowing the power of 311's music, I was unprepared for what was to come next. When vocalists Nick Hexum and S.A. Martinez took the stage, the energy in the venue shifted from chill to absolutely electric. As the band kicked off the night with "Homebrew" and "Freeze Time," I spent most of the three songs I was allowed to shoot from the photo pit chasing Martinez as he stomped and thrusted across the stage. Even though I’m 20 years younger than the singer, I struggled to keep up with him, working up my own sweat to match the perspiration that had started to build on his brow and shirt.
Returning to the crowd, I briefly stopped to take in the scene that I was a part of. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before at a concert. I'll try my best to explain it, but it really is something you have to see for yourself. The fans were appreciative of every moment of the show, singing along to hits like "All Mixed Up," "Come Original" and the popular cover of The Cure’s "Lovesong" in which the band brought out the opener Matisyahu to join them on. When P-Nut started his bass solo, it was like the world stopped for several moments. The bassist captivated the crowd with riff after riff, inciting an eruption of applause and chants of his name when he finished.
Even though the event was at the tail end of over 20 summer dates, you would never have noticed the way 311 performed. They gave their all on every single song, clearly feeling at home on the stage. Martinez's once damp shirt became soaked through with sweat and Hexum kept shedding layers of clothing, settling for a black wife beater. When they came together for their signature drum line halfway through the set, the clear joy of the moment was infectious.
The rest of the night is a blissful blur of dancing, singing and screaming. In the spirit of the name of the tour, it really felt like the fans unified, joining together to recite the words to several of the bands' many chart-toppers including "Beautiful Disaster," "Amber" and "Down" before exiting the stage.
It was just a matter of time before a joint chant for an encore broke out and the band quickly appeased the drooling fans. After playing "Silver," the place literally went crazy as 311 finished off the night with "Creatures (For a While)," causing a mosh pit of sorts to break out in the crowd. Instead of just leaving the stage, they showed their own appreciation for the brodels and slinkies in the audience, slapping high fives and starting another chant of the bands' name.
As we left the venue with ears buzzing and hearts thumping, suddenly it wasn't so surprising that many in the audience had seen 311 in concert 20 or more times. The night had fulfilled everything I'd heard and more about seeing them live and for the first time following a concert, I headed to the parking lot feeling like a part of something bigger than myself: a family.