Thursday, May 5, 2011

CONCERT REVIEW: Social Distortion

I saw Social Distortion in concert for the fifth time last night (not including having seen Mike Ness solo twice). As I sit here today with ringing in my ears and that “cotton-y” feeling in my head, I can’t help but think I witnessed something pretty special last night.

The first two times I saw Social D it was in the early 2000’s, shortly before and shortly after the release of their album “Sex, Love, and Rock & Roll”. Both shows were at the Pageant, a spacious and very nice club in St. Louis.

The next two times I saw them, in 2008 and 2009 (I think), the gigs were held at Pops, a smaller, “rougher” club in the East St. Louis “suburb” of Sauget, IL.

Social Distortion releases an album and then tours around that record for about four years at a time. My guess is that since “Sex, Love, and Rock & Roll” was about to be released and had just been released around the times of their two Pageant shows, interest in the band was high, so they merited a larger venue. When I heard their next gig was to be at Pop’s, I was a little disappointed, because I could only assume the demand for their tickets wasn’t there. However, those two shows knocked my socks off!

The first two Pageant shows were good. Social D are my favorite band and I believe them to be incapable of delivering a bad show. But, they paled in comparison to the two gigs at Pops.

The Pops shows had a definite edge to them. The audience was in a much smaller space and Pops has a much tougher, more blue-collar vibe than the Pageant. But the band played as if they had something to prove.

Over the past several years, I’ve thought a lot about Social Distortion. Mostly, their aging. Mike Ness is now 49 years old. I wondered at one point how much longer they could keep doing what they’re doing and not begin to look/sound silly. Even formerly great artists, such as Mick Jagger, have become caricatures of their former selves in old age.

I needn’t have worried with Social Distortion.

The late-2000’s Pops shows proved that they could still rock and had no intention of stopping. At each show, Mike Ness was dressed simply in his traditional high-waisted work pants and a black T-shirt. He didn’t talk very much between songs. It was all about no-frills rock-n-roll, baby.

The last time I saw SxDx at Pops, they debuted several new songs. And then came “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes”, the home of said new tunes.

This was the album that made me realize I never needed to worry about Social Distortion’s punk rock credentials, their integrity, their age, or whatever.


Put simply, I think the album is their masterpiece. It has the same hard edge and trademark sound of their early stuff. It also bears the roots we’ve come to expect and love – but even more so. And it represents a fair amount of growth for the band. A few years ago, they added keyboards and organs to their live show and those sounds made their way onto “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes”. One track, “California (Hustle & Flow)” even featured Exile-era Rolling Stones-style background vocalists.

Very good stuff indeed. And proof that you can still be a punk rawk band AND grow up.

So it was with high expectations that I attended last night’s show. What would the new songs sound like? How many would they play? How would they pull off some of the new sounds???

Fuggedaboutit.

Right from the start, the band threw curveballs. In the times I’ve seen Social Disortion and/or Mike Ness, they traditionally take the stage in one of two ways: together, as a band, to music piped through the sound system (ranging from old rockabilly, doo-wop, or other classic genres), or the band comes out and plays an instrumental piece, during which Mike Ness, their leader and the clear star of the show, emerges.

Last night, they came out as a band. To 2pac’s “California Love”! Then they launched into “Road Zombie”, the instrumental lead track off their new album, which I expected. But Mike came out with the band, and they started together.

Rather than a simple T-shirt, Mike strutted out in tailored suit pants with suspenders and a sharp white dress shirt last night. He usually takes the stage in some kind of hat and flashy jacket. Last night it was a classy fedora and full length overcoat.

“Road Zombie” segues right into “California (Hustle & Flow) on the new album and I figured it would in the live setting as well. Wrong. They launched straight from “Road Zombie” into “So Far Away”, a track from their 1990 self-titled album.

They followed that with not one, but two tracks from 1992’s “Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell” (one of the greatest albums of all time in my humble opinion).

As a 20-year fan, I loved the expedition into their back catalog, much of which I’d never heard performed live. But, after three songs, I figured they’d be keyed up to get to the new material. They have a record to sell, after all!

Wrong.

These songs were followed by two more from older albums; “Mommy’s Little Monster”, the title track from Social D’s debut full-length album (1983) and one of their signature tunes, “Sick Boy” from the 1990 self-titled album.

Only at this point, did they dip into new material. Mike introduced, “One of my favorites from the new record”, which was “Machine Gun Blues”. This was, for a time, the only song that troubled me on their new record. I love the song. But it’s full of gangster imagery, violence, killing, running from the law. The kind of thing I’d been wondering how much more of they'd be able to pull off as they neared 50.

Again, my fears were put to rest. The band recently unveiled a “short film” to accompany the song, which explained the significance of it to them. Again, good stuff indeed, and shame on me for doubting Mighty Mike Ness.

After that one track (during which a new backdrop, featuring the new album cover, was unfurled) , Social D launched back into the old stuff; the classic “Ball and Chain” from their self-titled album, which was followed by “Down On the World Again”, from “White Light White Heat White Trash”, an album they very seldom feature in concert.

And then things got sa-weet.

Mike introduced “Bakersfield”, one of the most ambitious songs on the new record, and one of my favorites. They followed that with what Mike called his “favorite song on the new album”, “Gimme the Sweet and Low Down” – another song that marks a departure from tradition for the band, but at the same time manages to still totally be Social D at the same time.

At this point, a fiddle player (from one of the opening bands) joined Social Distortion onstage, Johnny “Two Bags” Wickersham, the guitar player, switched to acoustic, and the keyboard player strapped on an accordion.

(SIDE NOTE: The openers for the show were a young punk band from Birmingham, England called Sharks. Meh. But the second opened was Chuck Ragan, who’s apparently played in punk bands previously and now does a rootsy, Americana type thing consisting of him on acoustic guitar and vocals, a stand up bass, and a fiddle. The Riverfront Times Music Blog this morning called it a mix between Motorhead and the Pogues – and as weird as that description sounds, it nails it. It was VERY good stuff. And unlike it usually is for an opener, the audience was digging Chuck Ragan!)

Ness introduced the first song in this new setting as “one we hardly ever play live”. It turned out to be “Down Here (w/the Rest of Us)” from “White Light White Heat White Trash”, another of my favorite SxDx songs, but one that’s usually done pretty ‘hard’. The acoustic/honky-tonk setting did a LOT for the song. Most of all, I think it made more space for the vocals.

When most modern bands sing, even when I like them, I still feel like they’re just singing words. But when Mike Ness sings about burying loved ones and knowing how we feel when we’re down, I believe him 100%.

They did one more in the unique set-up they had going on, the sole track played from the “Sex, Love, and Rock & Roll” album, “Reach for the Sky” – another case where the new set-up left some room for the gravity of the lyrics. In the song, Mike sings about living wild and recklessly, knowing that “a day may come when you have something to lose”.

Mike hasn’t shied away from sharing his personal story of wild living, heroin addiction, prison, and violence. I’ve interviewed him twice and both times he graciously spoke about the process of growing up. Much love and respect to my brother for being bold and transparent like that.

They ended the first segment of the show with their cover of the Kitty Wells classic honky tonk number “Making Believe”, a song from “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” that I’ve always loved, but haven’t ever heard live.

They started their encore, as they have every time I’ve seen them, with “Prison Bound”, the title track from their second album (1988); they talked a lot about and then played “Story of My Life” from their self-titled album; and ended the night with their take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” from the same album.

The set-up to “Story of My Life” was another case of getting older and growing up. Mike talked about how the song “stopped being about me a long, long time ago” and how it was now the story of everyone in the room. He pointed out that many of us had grown up singing it with Mike and now there was another, younger generation growing up listening to it, too. And we all sang it together that night.

At one point, someone yelled out a request that I couldn’t make out. Mike stopped, laughed, and said, “Man…I hate that fuckin’ song. I’m 49 years old and you still want me to sing about mom and dad and jail?”

And I felt a little validated. I’d felt badly as I’d questioned how Social Distortion was going to age. I didn’t want to doubt them, but I also never wanted to reach a point where I had to “break up” with my all time favorite band.

Turns out, I didn't need to be worried at all, because it’s been on Mike’s mind, too.

He spent much more time talking to and with the audience tonight than I’ve ever seen him do. His trademark vertical leap may have lost a few inches in recent years, but Mike was clearly having a really good time. He was thoughtful and introspective.

And while the last two Social Distortion shows I saw were about having something to prove, this one was decidedly about NOT having anything to prove. It was almost as if they had released their masterpiece album and now it was just all about playing and enjoying the music. About the art.

Bully for Social D. And…just for the record…just because they’ve released their masterpiece, doesn’t mean they have to stop. Or that they can’t release another one!

I bought “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” my freshman year of high school and it literally changed my life. Social Distortion has been my favorite band for over 20 years now. I thought for a while about taking my four-year old daughter with me to the show. This is definitely a band I plan to pass on to her and that I hope we can share. I wasn’t sure if she was ready, and it turned out she was sick last night, so the decision was made for me.

But during the last song of the night – their scorching version of “Ring of Fire”, I looked to the far edge of the stage, and Mike Ness (after jokingly rubbing the head of a bald bouncer) began playing with a child someone in the audience had lifted up to his level. Kid couldn’t’ have been more than two, if even that. Him and Mike slapped high fives, played a bit, Mike gave him a pick, and then they ended the show.

Perfect.

Long live Social Distortion. And if the Good Lord’s willin’ and the crick don’t rise, I’ll bring my daughter to the next one.

5-4-11 Social Distortion Setlist
Road Zombie
So Far Away
King of Fools
Bad Luck
Mommy's Little Monster
Sick Boy
Machine Gun Blues
Ball and Chain
Down on the World Again
Bakersfield
Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown
Down Here (w/the Rest of Us)
Reach for the Sky
Making Believe
Encore:
Prison Bound
Story of My Life
Ring of Fire

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