Iconic rockers Social Distortion brought their brand of Punk N Roll to a sold out show in Portland on Tuesday at the Roseland Theater and took their time doing it.
Witnessing the first show of any tour, which this was, provides little more than a mental souvenir for the fan but also requires some patience on those in attendance as the kinks are worked out. The band, led by Mike Ness, did not reach the stage until after 10 p.m., more than 30 minutes after the second opening act left, and paced their way through a 16-song set.
Ness looked winded at times taking frequent breaks between songs, chatted up the audience more than I can remember and even joked at one point about needing to get some oxygen. Perhaps more than 30 years of underground Rock N Roll will do that, especially for Ness who eclipsed 50 last week. However the playing did not suffer at all.
This was perhaps not only the strongest set of songs I can remember but Social Distortion is playing at a very high level. Ness, who founded Social Distortion with (more or less) the late Dennis Danell, has made brilliant decisions in keeping what is rightfully his band together after the exits of so many previous members. Brent Harding is entertaining to watch on bass and how can you go wrong with veteran guitarist Jonny Wickersham, who joined after Danell passed in 2000.
The band started the show with “Bad Luck,” “So Far Away” and “Story of my Life” before ripping into “Machine Gun Blues” off their latest album Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, which is already almost a year and a half old. At this point any frustration with the band for taking so long to start had melted away, and after “Telling Them,” all was forgiven.
Shockingly, after 10 songs (just an hour) the band left the stage. The typical encore is usually two or three songs, however Social Distortion added five and another 30 minutes including two of their best songs “Winners and Losers” and “Far Behind.” “Reach for the Sky” was also in the encore set and relaxed a bit with more of a bluegrass flavor. It worked and I applaud the band for trying a new approach, however perhaps more effective would be for Ness to sing the first few bars acapella before the band comes in hard and fast.
Social Distortion has come a long way musically and professionally in the last three decades. The band is pretty much the only surviving member of 80’s punk rock and they are so much better than the Crawford Hall days at UC Irvine. However, 20 years ago Social Distortion opened for the Ramones at the Roseland and today they still play there. Thankfully, they passed up (whether intentional or not) playing at the Crystal Ballroom but after more than 30 years and such a loyal following the band deserves a larger venue.
Hard Times may also not be as punk rock as some would like but as Ness said during the show he’s not angry anymore. Though after pausing, he said he was angry about different problems. Anger makes for good records – Mommy’s Little Monster – but an angry and bitter teenager cannot stand the test of time . The reality is had Ness not grown up like the rest of us both he and Social Distortion would have washed out before 1990 ever happened.
Every album by Social Distortion is a testament to Ness’ life phases. The angry me against the world at the beginning, a little melancholy after spending time in prison and then reflective with how fast life moves. From there Social Distortion, or rather Ness, gets down on himself before realizing, as all of us do eventually, that he was wrong.
Perhaps, now liberated from his personal pain, Ness is focusing on enjoying himself, the music and playing. Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll is a testament to that and is one of the band’s best albums. Hard Times simply continues with what all musicians should do: Grow in their music and writing. Ness has indicated he doesn’t want to wait another six to seven years before releasing a new album and we can only hope he sticks to that plan.
Social Distortion plays a second show Thursday at the Roseland.
Social Distortion Portland Setlist (Roseland Theater):
1. Bad Luck
2. So Far Away
3. Story of my Life
4. Machine Gun Blues
5. Sick Boys
6. Telling Them
8. Gimme the Sweet and Low Down
9. Dear Lover
10. Sometimes I do
11. Nickels and Dimes
12. Winners and Losers
13. Let the Jukebox Keep Playing
14. Reach for the Sky
15. Far behind
16. Ring of Fire