It's just about midnight, and the beaming blond girl with the stubby pigtails and richly inked tattoos on both arms is on a serious Sublime high. When Jose & Sumlimes, the Sublime cover act that's holding forth at Mr. Roberts tavern, jogs into "The Wrong Way," the long-defunct Long Beach trio's biggest hit, she nearly pushes a girlfriend into one of the small wedge-shaped monitors that cordon off the band's gear from the rest of the bar's tiled floor.
This doesn't faze Jose singer Sean Nolan. Eyes clamped shut, feet planted wide, he's on a Sublime high of his own. When he reaches the point in the syncopated reggae-rock hybrid where the narrator admits that he, too, has abused the former teenage prostitute he's rescued from the streets, Nolan's face turns a mellow shade of crimson and his appealing tenor brims with pathos.
When the song's over, Nolan turns to lead guitarist Lee Payne and grins, then grabs the bottle of Cuervo Gold the band's been passing around all night and takes a long pull. By the time he's finished, drummer Kai Andersen and bass player Jason McGoldrick are throbbing through the intro of "Don't Push," and the girl with the pigtails is urging another friend onto the impromptu dance floor.
When they're not covering the late Bradley Nowell and company (or the Sublime offshoot, Long Beach Dub Allstars), Nolan, Payne, Andersen, McGoldrick and co-lead singer Adam Zierten perform as Reason for Leaving, a decade-old Madison band whose mix of rock, reggae and funk also draws a broad, dance-friendly audience.
Jose & Sumlimes got their start five years ago, when a house painter buddy suggested his pals play a full set of Sublime covers down at the Klinic bar. "At first, we felt badly about how quickly Jose caught on," says Payne, who, like the rest of the band, is in his early 30s. "You know, because we'd struggled for so long as Reason for Leaving. But we got over it."
"Oh yeah," adds Nolan. "We've even opened for ourselves before."
Sublime only had two proper releases out when singer/songwriter Nowell died of a heroin overdose in 1996, and even when you add in a spate of posthumous collections, the trio's songbook isn't all that thick. Just the same, Zierten says everyone from punks and college kids to a smattering of Rastas and hip-hop fans are devoted to the band's music.
Consequently, Jose & Sumlimes have never felt compelled to nail Sublime's stage show or daub on facsimiles of Nowell's prodigious body ink. "One Halloween up in Green Bay, we dressed up with these paper lime masks, and one of us was a bandito," notes Zierten. "But that didn't last a whole set. We just play the music and stay pretty close to the arrangements on the records."
You'd think that reliving another band's material, year after year, might eventually get a little dull. But Nolan insists that's not the case. "It's still a lot of fun," he says. "That's why we're still doing it."
His bandmates admit, however, that they wouldn't mind turning their Sublime addiction into a little more cash. The shows at Mr. Roberts are free, and frankly, playing for tips isn't very remunerative. "I'd like to call up Jose Cuervo and have them take us down to spring break in Florida or Mexico," says Payne. "I think they'd love us."