In 1990, Mike Ness had the foresight to realize that as much as he loved playing punk rock music, if he was to sustain a durable career with his brash, young Fullerton, California, group, he needed to put all his influences to work and add depth to his burgeoning band's repertoire.
While at that time country music was frowned upon by many punk and alt critics as being old school and uncool, Ness took a chance and infused the styles of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash with punk rock, thus giving heart and soul to his brand of rock ’n’ roll. The group's cathartic, self-titled third album allowed Ness to exorcise his drug and booze demons of the past, and forever change the face of Social Distortion for the better.
Tuesday night before a sold-out crowd, Ness along with his well-established lineup of guitarist Jonny "Two Bags" Wickersham, bass player Brent Harding, drummer David Hildago Jr., and keyboard player David Kalish ripped through the 1990 album in its entirety and laced the set with a few other classic Social D numbers during a 90-minute-plus set.
Ness and band actually slowed down many of the night's numbers, giving way to couples dancing, volleying verses back-and-forth with the crowd and even inviting some grade-school kids on stage. Let's face it: Many of Social Distortion's longtime fans are no longer kids but raising future fans, so it was a family night, as the audience was dotted with kids and parents enjoying the show.
Despite this night being different from other Social Distortion shows, in comparison to the many previous Phoenix-area stops the band has made over its 37-plus years, the audience was lively as ever.
Highlights of the commemorated third album portion of the show included "Story of My Life," "Ball and Chain," "Sick Boys," "She's a Knockout," and "Let It Be Me."
For good measure, Social Distortion performed the Hank Williams classic "Alone and Forsaken" and "Gimme Me the Sweet Low Down," both from Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, and "Cold Feelings" from 1992's Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. The band even covered a rousing rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" for good measure.
But the night was all about winding things up to a feverish pitch as Ness and band encored lengthy versions of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and closed the night with "Folsom Prison Blues."
Drag the River, from Fort Collins, Colorado, got the evening show started with its heavy brand of down-and-dirty punk-laced alt-country, setting the tone for the evening. Up-and-coming first lady of outlaw country Nikki Lane and her band played their no-nonsense brand of country rock second. The tall, leggy Nashville singer's voice echoes rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson with Neko Case, playing the country kitten with a whip as she led her group through a tight set, including her hauntingly taunting single "Right Time."
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Last Night: Social Distortion, Nikki Lane, and Drag the River at Marquee Theatre
The Crowd: I must be getting too old or just wish I could have been closer to the stage on this night. Many in attendance seemed to be there because of the mere reputation Social Distortion has built up over three decades, which is a good thing — but many were not really paying attention to the performance in its entirety, snapping too many selfies and spilling drinks — a bad thing. Today's shows for fans are as much about being part of the show, rather than simply enjoying it. On another note, Ness told me after the show that he loved seeing fans in the balcony once more, as it had been closed last time through. He claims the fullness of the crowd on the floor and up high gave the show a much fuller, richer sound.