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Social Distortion

Live at the Norva in Norfolk, VA on 10-23-2006
by Travis Becker

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A select few bands manage to turn that elusive corner, heading upwards and transcending the boundaries of the genre into which they are lumped when they begin their careers. Sometimes virtuoso talent acts as the catalyst for this evolution, and sometimes great songwriting gets you there. Now and again, though, a band reaches this summit by sheer honesty, integrity, and sticking to what they hell they're trying to do. Yup, that's the sound of Mike Ness and Social Distortion wafting down to us from the pinnacle.

When the band pulled into Norfolk, Virginia last Monday, it brought a set of tried and true songs, songs mortared together with the lifeblood of American music. From Blues and Country to the Punk Rock that brought their music to the hordes of outsiders trying their hardest not to fit in, Social Distortion is not merely a great Punk band or a even just a great Rock and Roll band. Social D rank with the best this country has to offer from any era, in any style. Social Distortion plays songs you remember. They play songs that give you goose bumps every time you hear them, that convey feelings everyone has had so easily that it makes them wonder why they couldn't say it so well. Fortunately for everyone, Social Distortion is here to say it for us.

The concert began with a short set from the Supersuckers. Eddie Spaghetti and company tore through a set of old favorites, mixing Punk and country charm, all while preaching about the greatness of just being awesome. While some in the front of the room were called out for acting in a decidedly non-awesome way, most of the house was down with Eddie's new "awesome" religion. A slow version of "Creepy Jackalope Eye" and the pro-Satan anthem, "Born with a Tail" highlighted their too-brief set.

Social Distortion hit the stage after a brief prelude during which the band got revved up while Mike Ness tossed a few roses out to the crowd. Ness, in his now trademark coveralls and tattoo sleeves, stepped up the front the stage after the short instrumental and tore into a pair of songs from 2004's Sex, Love and Rock and Roll album. "Reach for the Sky" and "Highway 101" energized a crowd, which was already restless for some Social D. Young and old alike jumped and pumped fists, singing along even to these newer songs.

Ness delved into his somewhat checkered legal past with songs like "Prison Bound" and the image-evoking, "Nickels and Dimes", which was co written by guitarist, Jonny Wickersham, or Jonny Two Bags, if you like. Ness quipped that the pair had just taken their collective rap sheets and put them together to form the basis of the song.

Mixing in some older tunes like "Sick Boy" and "Mommy's Little Monster", the band continued on to raucous approval from the nearly sold out Norva. Ness, clearly enjoying himself, even enlisted the audience to sing backup on a few tracks, even switching the vocal harmonies and giving the male audience members the high parts to sing. "Just grab your nuts and go," he joked as the crowd cheered him. The band wedged "Ball and Chain" right into the middle of the set and it acted as an anchor for the rest of the songs. A better hard luck song may never have been written. Ness's deft songwriting hits just the right emotions, culminating with the ultimate inescapability of one's self. "But wherever I have gone/ I was sure to find myself there/ you can run all your life/ but not go anywhere," the song's middle verse declares. As many of the thirty and forty and even fifty-plus year olds at the concert could surely testify, truer words never have never been spoken (or sung). Why else would those faithful still be at a Punk show at midnight on a Monday? Ness did give everyone a pass to skip work on Tuesday in a selflessly kind gesture.

Of course, in addition to the heartfelt songwriting of Mike Ness, Social Distortion has always been adept at picking cover songs and making them their own. Their version of "Under my Thumb" slays the Stones version and did that night, and of course, "Ring of Fire", played as part of the encore at this particular show, has become something of a theme song for the band. Each time they play the song, it seems to be packed with more conviction and more emotion. Perhaps with Johnny Cash's passing, the song has taken on something of a new life.

After the passing of long time guitarist Dennis Danell in 2000, Ness could have called it quits. The band and he personally had been through the ringer enough times, but Ness soldiered on. After making maybe the best album of his career in Sex, Love, and Rock and Roll, Ness got the band back on the road and has since cemented its legacy as one of America's most important bands. With a sly smile, or an easy laugh, Ness commands his audience, even when he's threatening to "beat your ass, just for something to do." If you're a retired punk, or still in the scene, or if you've been there-done that, or haven't done anything yet, a Social Distortion show just feels right. Like a dysfunctional family reunion or just breathing easier for a couple of hours remembering something old or making a new memory, the music of Social D is timeless and by the end of the show, you're wishing it was endless.


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