Concert review and set list: Social Distortion slows it down at Pop’s, Saturday, April 28

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Mike Ness seems tired, or maybe just bored. I saw him about this time last year at the Pageant and walked away thinking I had seen one of the greatest shows. But after last night’s Social Distortion show at Pop’s, I cruised back home over the bridge a little more than underwhelmed.
 
Social Distortion is currently rounded out by Johnny “2 Bags” Wickersham on guitar (who traded off guitar solos with Ness and looks just like the late and former Social D guitarist Dennis Dannel), Brent Harding on bass and David Hidalgo, Jr. on the drums. Hidalgo is the newest member of Social, joining in 2010, and deserves to be in the ranks of Chuck Biscuits and Derek O’Brien as a punk-rock drummer.

Decked out in his now standard fedora, black suspenders and high-waist trousers, Ness and company took the smoky and antique trinket-adorned stage to Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” (it was the version with Johnny Winter). Of course, Ness made the dramatic appearance and bowed. Why the hell he doesn’t just get a punk rock gig in Vegas is beyond me. The classic blues song faded out and finally Mike Ness’ distinct Les Paul rang out the opening chords of “Bad Luck” and performed by far the most energetic song of the band’s set.

Social Distortion sounded fine for the first half of their set or so, ripping through those confessional hindsight rockers that Ness has come to master and even indulge in at times. Fan favorites like “Story of my Life,” “Sick Boy” and “I Was Wrong” reminded me of why I love Social Distortion so damn much. (And, yes, “Social Distortion!” replaced “self destruction” during the “I Was Wrong” chorus much to my pleasure and anyone else who has seen/heard that song live.) Mike Ness seems to know what we go through at our lowest points and how we feel in our moments of redemption. He captures those bittersweet sentiments perfectly in his songs.
 
However, as much as I love this band, it wasn’t too long into their rather brief set that I felt something was askew with the band. An organ/keyboard player graced the stage, and appeared to walk off stage as much as he played inaudible parts during the songs. But that wasn’t it. Something wasn’t right; the show just was not building up any momentum. There were moments when the musicians would be talking amongst each other and the venue was completely silent save for conversations regarding whiskey sours and leather jackets.
 

Mike Ness seemed to be having a bad night. Sure, he chatted with us about being a fair-weather sports fan, how having tattoos doesn’t make you crazy but rather just means you know someone who works in a tattoo shop. And, yeah, there were mohawks, middle fingers and crowd surfing. But he was singing all his songs about twice as slow, deliberately drawing out melodies and lyrics. The results made him sound uncomfortable, almost awkward with the songs.

At one point in the last year or so, I caught wind of Mike Ness’ appreciation of Otis Redding. And I feel that might be the direction he wants to pursue and is getting tired of performing his old Social Distortion catalog. But that’s just a theory. Onstage, it feels like he’s trying to slow the songs down and explore his voice more; he did that often at the end of the songs.

This seemed to be the case when performing “Bakersfield,” one of the few songs where a calculated groove is established and brings to mind an old ’60s soul record rather than a punk-rock Hank Williams. Moreover, Social Distortion has taken the dramatic song ending to a whole new level. They nearly put as much energy and passion into the last few bars of a song than the song itself and almost make little 10 to 15 second songs out of them. I mean, they did this for every song last night.
 
Plagued with technical problems, occasional amp squeals, the second half of the show seemed to drag on. Often during solos, Ness would gesture elaborately to the sound guy like a lieutenant in battle. And, then, after what felt like a half hour or so (it was more like an hour) the show was over and Mike Ness strummed out the final chords of “Nickels and Dimes” in typical grand fashion and said “Goodnight!” He couldn’t seem to get off the stage quick enough.

The set was rushed and hit-or-miss — and not one song from 1983′s “Mommy’s Little Monster.” Damn shame. They did, however, return for an encore. And of all the times I’ve spent obsessively listening to Social Distortion’s live album, “Live at the Roxy,” I never thought that at one of their shows I would be heading towards the exit before they completely wrapped it up.

Hopefully they’ll be in better shape next time. Oh, and the Toadies rocked, too. I caught the very end of their set and was pleasantly surprised at how great the four-piece sounds. Imagine, a raw and humble Weezer.
 
Social Distortion set list:

Bad Luck
So Far Away
Story of my Life
I Was Wrong
Machine Gun Blues
Sick Boy
Cold Feelings
Bakersfield
Gimme That Sweet and Lowdown
(I don’t know, you got me, Mike Ness)
Ball and Chain
Nickels and Dimes
 
Encore:
All right, to be honest, a fight broke out in front of me so I was a little preoccupied, but they did close with Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” per usual.

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