The more things change, the more Social Distortion stays the same. At least that’s the impression the band left in 2012 at House of Blues for the first of two sold out shows. While singer-guitarist Mike Ness might have exchanged his wifebeater for a baggy suit and fedora that made him look like some kind of tattooed gangster, the guy has retained his signature punk rock snarl.
He sounded particularly good on “I Was Wrong,” the confessional tune that the band played at the opening of the 90-minute show. While he had to have the song’s lyrics on stage with him just in case he forgot the words, Ness had no trouble delivering the song in all its ragged glory. The same went for “So Far Away” and “Bad Luck,” the next two songs he and his bandmates ripped through.
While Social D.’s rip-roaring anti-establishment anthems went over best with the audience, the set’s highlights were the songs that showed off the group’s rockabilly roots. “Bakersfield,” a tune about the desolate California town just north of L.A., had a certain eloquence to it and found the band turning the guitars down so Ness could make the line about walking out to a “lonely truck stop” really resonate. And the group almost sounded like a folk act on “Sometimes I Do,” a tune the singer introduced by saying, “You don’t have to be Irish to like this next song, but it certainly helps.” The guys even brought out a stand-up bass for the Carl Perkins’ track “Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing” and stayed true to the song’s roots rock feel.
Ness was in fine form throughout the night and regularly bantered with the audience as he recalled the band’s first show in Cleveland back in 1982. He said something disparaging about Cincinnati in the process, but no one seemed to take offense. The band left the best for last, delivering a raucous rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that sent the crowd into a frenzy. The band has always had a strong Cleveland connection, something that guitarist Jonny Wickersham acknowledges in a recent phone interview.
“Cleveland is just a great rock 'n' roll town,” he says from his Los Angeles home, adding that the Cleveland date on the current tour was the first show outside of the tour’s SoCal dates to sell out.
The current tour is a special one too. The band will celebrate the 25th anniversary release of its self-titled effort. That album was the band’s third studio effort and first for Epic Records. It became their best-selling album worldwide. Singles “Story of My Life,” “Ball and Chain,” “Ring of Fire” and “Let It Be Me” all reached Top 25 Billboard single chart positions. This past Record Store Day, the album was re-released on limited edition color vinyl for Record Store Day.
As part of the tour, the band achieved another goal. It just played its fiftieth show at House of Blues on the Sunset Strip in L.A. The club is closing and Social D wanted to bid farewell with a bang.
“We decided to add a couple of nights and make it 50,” says Wickersham. “It’s the end of an era. I can remember when that place first opened up.”
Released some 25 years ago, Social Distortion represented a real breakthrough for the group. Even though
Wickersham didn’t play on the album, he instantly appreciated it from the first time he heard it.
“Well, for me, it’s interesting because I wasn’t in the band,” he says. “I was around and around the band a lot. I was playing in a different band. We had put out our first record that year. Social D was a lot bigger than us and had been around for about 12 years. I remember when that [album] came out and we watched Social D jump up to a whole new level. It was a groundbreaking record for sure. They went from a van to a bus and started playing big shows and went on tour with guys like Neil Young. They had already gotten airplay locally on KROQ for [the anthem] ‘Prison Bound.’ They’ve been playing them since it was just the Rodney [Bingenhemier] show. I was just a kid then but I remember hearing ‘1945’ and ‘Mainliner’ on Rodney’s show. They played the shit out of Prison Bound
when that record came out. This next record was a whole different thing.”
Social Distortion became a huge breakthrough for the band. “Story Of My Life,” “Ball and Chain,” “Ring of Fire” and “Let It Be Me” all charted as singles.
“I think the universal themes of ‘Ball and Chain’ and ‘Story of My Life’ were significant,” he says. “I remember thinking that ‘Story of My Life’ was a real departure. I heard some demos. I don’t know if it was a rough mix tape or something. I heard some early stuff before it came out and I thought they were branching out into a different direction. It didn’t not make sense. It’s rootsy Americana and I know that’s where Mike was headed. It really, really worked. I don’t know if he even thought that would happen. He just wrote a song and told the truth.”
Wickersham says he can remember hearing “So Far Away” immediately liking it.
“It’s a super catchy, fucking cool song,” he says. “The material is good and the record is great and the timing is perfect. Ultimately, I think it comes down to timing for anything. You could put out a great record at the wrong time and it won’t make a difference. Everything has to line up. You could put out a horrible record at the right time and it could make a huge impression.”
At times, the ride has been a rough one for the band. When original guitarist Dennis Danell passed away in 2000, Ness thought about calling it day.
“He was going to put the band down,” says Wickersham. “But he changed his mind at some point and decided the best thing to do was to keep it going. We agreed that that’s what Dennis wanted to do.”
Wickersham says the current lineup is one of the band’s best.
“[Bassist] Brent [Harding] has been in the band since 2004, since right after we put out Sex, Love and Rock n’ Roll
. [Drummer David] Hidalgo has been in the band right after we put out Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
in 2011. It’s super stable. The lineup is ridiculous. David Kalish is playing B-3 organ. It’s never sounded better. Super strong rhythm section. It’s great to see Mike really happy with it. He’s struggled over the year with trying to get the perfect rhythm section together. He’s real big on grooves and tempos and how a song should be played. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is. There’s gotta be a beat. There’s gotta be a groove.”
Given that Ness and Co. have had such a tumultuous ride, what exactly keeps the guys going?
“I think it’s just what we do,” says Wickersham. “This is our life and nobody in this band set up anything else. We’ve been doing it since we were kids. We literally jumped into a van early in our lives and started touring. We dedicated our entire lives to it. There’s no point in ever stopping, for better or worse.”
Social Distortion, Nikki Lane, Drag the River, 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $35, houseofblues.com.