Social Distortion, Lucero and Frank Tuner House of Blues - Dallas, TX November 20, 2010
Better Than: A show that Frank Turner wasn't opening.
Saturday night at the House of Blues, the social skills of Mike Ness and his crew of rockabilly punks were anything but distorted. Orange County's timeless Social Distortion brandished their passes to the fountain of youth for all to see through a two hour set that traversed their decades of recording.
Actually, Mike Ness seemed as though he had found the keys to a time machine, as he was dressed rather nattily in black slacks, pressed white dress shirt and black suspenders. The black fedora he walked out in made him look like a kick-ass extra from Boardwalk Empire.
Yes, Social D is a punk-rock band. On many numbers, specifically the classics such as: "Mommy's Little Monster," "Another State of Mind" and "Bye Bye Baby," the punk was more prevalent. With other tunes, the rock aspect was on more prominent display. For example, one of the group's highest charting hits, "I Was Wrong" was indeed blistering, but not in a frenzied, buzzsaw fashion.
The faithful interpretation of the popular recorded version was augmented beautifully by an organ. In fact, organ and piano helped lift several of the numbers into a more rich terrain than previously achieved. Here's the thing: Piano's nice, but it's hardly punk-rock. Given that this is a band that has toured extensively over the last few years, even without a proper release to promote, it's understandable that their performance would boast a bit of sparkling polish to it. At times, however, the fact that the twenty-or-so songs performed on this night are basically the same songs that have made up most of their recent set lists gave off a going-through-the-motions feel.
Not that such formality bred complacency or absentmindedness, mind you. As a master of the rock-star pose, the spit and sweat that burst from Ness as he showed off his ability to still recreate the pouncing, leg-kicking, and air-grabbing stance, that he youthfully displays on the cover of their stellar Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell album, made it clear he was very present, indeed.
While the band was able to fairly grab tunes from throughout their catalog, thanks to not having a recent release to promote, all in attendance were given a peek into what the band's upcoming album will sound like, thanks to the four new songs that were performed. Judging from new numbers such as "Machine Gun Blues" and "Still Alive," fans that stopped buying Social D albums in 1995 aren't going to be overly thrilled with Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, to be released in January.
Opting for a more straight-forward American rock sonic, the frenetically thumping and urgent punk of "Sick Boys" (which was the song that garnered the largest mosh pits of the night) isn't the direction this band is heading. This was even more apparent with the electro-country blues of "Bakersfield" and a cover of the Hank Williams classic "Alone and Forsaken."
Remember, this is a band of pros. And, knowing that the patience of even their most die-hard fans can be tested with too much new material, Ness and company rewarded the sold-out crowd with a killer, soulful version of their signature song, "Ball and Chain." Keeping the momentum relatively down and wrestling emotion out of every line, Ness stilled even the madness of the aforementioned mosh-pits, which had been raging throughout the show in various areas of the room.
Another sign that this was more complex than your typical punk show was found in the encore. The first few songs were basically softer, and even meandering, tunes where punk rage was clearly absent. "Prison Bound" was opened up with a sparse, somber piano introduction that really nailed the bleakness described by the soon-to-be inmate. Less successful, though, was "Down Here With the Rest of Us," a pounding, soaring song that was turned into an acoustic-guitar driven country number with an accordion adding a bit of quirky character. The daring interpretation didn't exactly translate into a satisfactory result, as the urgent ferocity of the original was missing, and it proved to be indispensable to the success of the song.
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Of course, any wrongs (not that there was anything too egregious) were made very right when, to close the night, the opening notes to Social D's signature nod to the classic country music they so love, "Ring of Fire", burst forth and scorched its way across the club.
Personal Bias: Lucero - a band that I'm a fan of -- came on after Turner. They played really well, and the songs from their latest album, 1372 Overton Park sounded great, especially with the horn players on-stage. But, this is the second time in the last year or so I have seen them basically be outplayed by the band that preceded them. A while back, at the now-defunct Longhorn Saloon in Ft. Worth, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears sucked the life out of Lucero's set, after their insanely euphoric set simply lit the place on fire.
By the Way: Earlier in the night, Social D label-mate Frank Turner started off the evening's musical agenda with authority. The Englishman, who specializes in jangly, folk-inflected pub-rock, absolutely owned the early arriving throng, which was impressively substantial at 8:00pm. Pulling tunes from his well-received Poetry of the Deed album, Turner and his band emphatically and animatedly stated their case as perhaps the best opening-for-the-opener-band all year. Not that Social D needed it, but the crowd was revved and ready to go after his sadly short set of only 30 minutes.
Random Note: Greaser, Rockabilly culture is alive and well in Dallas. I lost count of how many couples consisted of the male wearing more product in his hair than his female counterpart.