Punk rock warlords Social Distortion destroyed The Paramount in Huntington Friday, September 5, delivering a powerful, high-energy collision of alt-country, rockabilly, blues and punk culled from the band’s nearly 40-year career as one of the genre’s chief hellraisers and innovators.
The Paramount gig was the second stop on a wrecking ball tour that swings the band—singer/guitarist Mike Ness, guitarist Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham, bassist Brent Harding and drummer David Hidalgo, Jr.—through more than a dozen states and showcases in typical Social-D style just why the Southern California outlaws are regarded as punk rock antihero icons and pioneers.
Gritty, tight and loud, the band roared through a 15- or 16-song onslaught led by heavily inked frontman Mike Ness.
Openers The Whigs got the party started with a five- or six-song set of grungy, garage-y effects-heavy rock punctuated by theatrics that had dozens crowded around the front of the stage and up on their feet moving along and applauding between each number.
Switching between a Les Paul, Telly and absolutely gorgeous Rick, Gispert played and sang with heart; by the fourth song or so riffing through a power-chord-heavy jam literally on his knees as bassist Timothy Deaux leveled deathblows strutting around like a praying mantis and drummer Julian Dorio just pounded the absolute living shtt outta the skins, absolutely crushing it. They stopped on a dime.
It was awesome. Lotsa applause.
“This is our first time playing on Long Island,” he said afterward, raising his arms then kicking back into the fuzzy, jangly “Already Young” off their second album, Mission Control.
“I don’t care what your old man thinks of me,” he sang, striking chords as if he was grabbing handfuls of strings and just tossing them to the side.
‘Thank you,” he said to precipitous applause. “Social Distortion is up next.”
After an electrifying blast through Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel,” Gispert feigned smashing his Les before he walked off. (Knew he wouldn’t.)
The Ramones came on over the house sound system. And after a while, the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Wickersham, Harding and Hildago, Jr., shrouded in darkness before the infamous Social Distortion banner, featuring the band’s mascot “Skelly” wearing a fedora and driving a classic car.
Then, Ness emerged—also sporting a fedora, white button-down dress shirt, black dress slacks and black suspenders. The place exploded as he flashed the peace sign, slung one of his notorious ’70s goldtop Les Pauls around his shoulder (which had a rose bud wedged into its headstock), and, after striking a brief, sneering pose center stage, lunged into a fiery “Through These Eyes” from 1996’s White Light White Heat White Trash.
A massive mosh pit opened up behind me as the band ripped through the fast and furious firebomb. Next, Ness takes off his hat and the band erupts like a fuming extraterrestrial volcano into another tune from that record, “Don’t Drag Me Down,” the crowd swelling forward as the pit grows and more and more tipsy men bash their way crisscrossing and swinging their fists into each other.
Boom—applause and then straight into “Untitled,” again from WLWHWT.
“Hello there,” Ness said afterward to resounding cheers and shouts. “God it’s great to be here. Thanks for having us in this end of summer festivities.
“You sound a little flat,” he teased, inciting even louder roars from the packed house. “Maybe you’re just getting warmed up like us.”
“This goes back 100 years,” he said, wistfully reminiscing about life on the “streets of Orange County” as punk rockers back in the day, facing off against hippies. “They wanted to kill us so I wrote a song called “I Just Want To Give You The Creeps” [off Social D’s 1983 debut Mommy’s Little Monster].
The place exploded. These three or four hysterical girls to my right just started screaming and jumping up and down, knocking into everyone around them. The mosh pit originally a few yards behind me burst into total fkn chaos and now engulfed those just an arm’s length away, everyone pushing and shoving and punching and kicking, arms swinging through the air blindly and landing across people’s jaws and necks and chests and a huge wave of smashed beer washing over my friend, a lil fella who was struggling just to remain standing.
“I’m covered in beer!” he howled, balancing on one leg and warding off inebriated and hopped-up punks and bikers.
“So you’re just getting started,” I laughed, pretending to try and pick him up and toss him onstage.
It was pure rock and roll pandemonium. Pure punk rock nirvana. It was fkn sweet. And it ensued and intensified through a machinegun barrage of songs with no banter between them but plenty of signature Mike Ness edge-of-stage poses, shrugs and exhale-spits: Mommy Little Monster’s “Another State of Mind” into Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell’s “Cold Feelings” (1992) into “Machine Gun Blues” off 2011’s Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes into White Light’s “Crown of Thorns” into Hard Times’ “Gimme The Sweet and Lowdown” into White Light’s “Gotta Know The Rules,” sweat dripping off his hands as he tears through its solo and mean refrain: “Some say life / Is a struggle now / It’s a game now / Just gotta know the rules / Gotta know the rules!”
Then, another gasp of air.
“We didn’t get out much today,’ Ness mused, peering out at the masses.
“Let’s have a look at this crowd,” as the house light illuminated several hundred sweaty, screaming fans.
It was hard to decipher exactly what he was saying above all the craziness (plus I was still trying to squeeze me way up a little further while one of those larger girls tried nudging me behind her and her friends lol).
“A lovely town, it’s great to be back here so soon,” it sounded like.
“What song do you wanna here now?” Ness asked.
“Sick Boy!” was a popular response.
The house darkened and Ness and crew collapsed into the brooding, thumping, painfully melodic “Dear Lover,” another number from White Light White Heat White Trash.
A ’Mount-wide sing-a-long broke out following the first few familiar chords of the addictive, anthemic crowd-pleaser “Ball and Chain” from 1990’s self-titled breakout album. Lol. It was amazing—the whole place singing some of the most immortal lines in punk: “Well it’s been 10 years and a thousand tears, and look at the mess I’m in. A broken nose and a broken heart, an empty bottle of gin…”
Ness grabbed a large dark-colored bottle from the drum riser afterward and took a long chug.
“He’s wasted,” snapped my buddy.
Then another pull.
“Has everyone had enough to drink yet!?” Ness snarled.
Following a split-second pause:
“The answer is no,” he boomed.
“I’m gonna ask you to help me sing a Hank Williams song [“Six More Miles (To The Graveyard)],” he continued, to cheers. “There wouldn’t be no nothing if it weren’t for Hank Williams.”
The house lights came on and Ness told us when we heard him sing “six more miles” we were to respond with “six more miles,” too.
He gave it a whirl.
“Six more miles,” he sang, to an uninspired chorus.
“You’re going to have to do better than that if you’re gonna sing with Social Distortion,” he laughed.
“Are we in Long Island or fkn Tulsa!?” he jeered, egging on the crowd to deafening levels.
The result was a loud, communal version that rocked.
“So what’s really going on in Long Island?” he asked afterward, taking another swig from his jug. “Gimme some spoof on this town.”
Again I fought hard to maintain my spot and keep from falling, so it was hard to make out what he was saying and the crowd’s response. Next thing I knew, I found myself amid a celebratory hand-clapping version of the radio-friendly mega-crowd-pleaser “Story of My Life,” from their self-titled disc.
Everyone was singing along. The whole place was clapping. It was one of those immortal punk rock moments where, sure, you could beat the hell out of each other in the pit or push and shove and elbow to move a few inches closer to the stage, but we’re all just music fans and this is Mike fkn Ness and Social fkn Distortion and we’re all here, now, participating in this celebration. Damn it was glorious.
There are these moments during a Social D show where the energy level climbs so high and the music is so loud and the band just sounds so raw and so spot-fkn on that you peer up from wherever you’re squeezed in the crowd and this magical, almost-otherworldly realization washes over you. This happens several times throughout their sets, and it’s happened to me throughout the years at several of their gigs, at venues ranging from the recently shuttered Roseland to Irving Plaza to the Nokia Theatre in Times Square and even LI’s long-gone Vanderbilt (I caught Ness there in 1999 in support of his equally timeless solo album Cheating At Solitaire).
The band is barreling along, taking no prisoners and just all-out rocking, the guitars are singing, the rhythm section is devastating and the solos just slice the night like laser-guided missiles screaming toward their targets: your very fkn heart. And there’s no words, all the chaos of the experience just sorta bleeds into one all-encompassing melody that just fkn grabs hold. And in the background there’s two walls of Marshalls just pushed to the brink. Ness is standing at the stage’s edge, posing and shrugging his shoulders as he just eviscerates whichever Les Paul he’s strangling broken blues notes and lightning power chords out of, and the Social D banner with Skelly’s draped across the back wall.
“Holy shtt,” you say to yourself, over and over again. “Holy shtt. Holy shtt. Holy shtt. Holy shtt. Wow.”
Social Distortion is a ferocious force of nature and you’re standing right there at ground fkn zero, swept up but somehow holding your ground, all this music and colors and life just swirling around you and washing over you. It’s pretty fkn intense, to say the least.
Two Bags, Harding and Hidalgo, Jr. each absolutely slayed: Harding laying down an insane low end that served as Social D’s cannonball underbelly; Hidalgo, Jr. just utterly destroying his kit throughout the night; and Two Bags—of U.S. Bombs, Youth Brigade and the Cadillac Tramps infamy before filling in for his friend, the late, great axeman (and founding Social D member) Dennis Danell—just absolutely KILLING IT on guitar. The man is a cyclone lol; he’s also got a new album out, Salvation Town, worth picking up.
Ness tossed out his guitar pick (I just missed it, though snagged two from Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen from the same stage about a week or so earlier) and he and the band walk off, the entire house just screaming and panting and gasping for air. It was like an apocalyptic hurricane, tornado or freight train (maybe all three) just tore through and devastated some poor town out in the middle of nowhere, then disappeared like some violent ghost. It did. They are.
It was about 11:30 p.m. They took the stage around 10, 10:15.
The shouts and clapping intensified as we all tried to bait them back out, hoping that the house lights wouldn’t kick on with songs through the house speakers to signal the end of the show. Then, through the darkness onstage, the band moseyed back to their gear, Ness taking the mic.
“They asked us where we wanted to start this tour,” Ness said to roars and squeals. “We told them the East Coast.”
“And I’m from Cali m’fkers!”
The place went even wilder as they kicked into “Sometimes I Do,” off 1992’s classic Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell.
“I’d like to do a song from 1999,” Ness said afterward. “If you’re havin a bad day, doesn’t it bother you when you’re sitting next to somebody who’s havin a good day?
“I believe that misery loves company,” he continued. “What are your thoughts and feelings on that!? This is just one of those songs that I listen to when I feel bad, so.”
‘Misery Loves Company” is off Ness’ gem of an album Cheating At Solitaire—a rootsy, moving collection of country-punk-rock and roll-folk tunes that includes guest spots by Bruce Springsteen and Brian Setzer, among others.
It slaughtered—Ness strutting around the stage, smiling and posing at its edge amid a blizzard of cell phone cameras.
You could literally watch drops of sweat just slinking off his tattooed hands while he played.
“Lil warm up in this bitch ain’t it,” he said afterward, taking more swigs from his bottle (it might have been water in it, I thought).
Then someone offstage hoists this lil wee tike up onstage.
“I brought a friend up here to say something,” says Ness, kneeling down and sharing the microphone with the little guy, who looked a hell of a lot like the lil dude who filled in on Strat for Cheap Trick when they stormed through The ’Mountler on August 26.
“What’s your name,” Ness asked the kid, who looked like a deer in headlights just staring out at the sea of people.
“William,” he responded.
“How old are you?” Ness asks. “Three? Seven?
“So you’re in first grade, second grade, third grade?” he continues.
Then Ness told everyone that when he was William’s age, he “wore a turtleneck sweater and brought a dagger to school” for Halloween, telling teachers and school administrators he “was a murderer.”
“Let me ask you something, William,” said Ness. “What’s your favorite band?”
The kid paused for a few seconds before whispering into the mic: “This one.”
The place went wild.
“This is the third generation [of fans],” reflected Ness. “I don’t think you can [mess] with something like that. And we feel very blessed.
“You want to sing a song?” he asked the lil fella, as he stood up, to jeers from the crowd.
“You don’t have to,” Ness told him, as the child returned to the side of the stage and rejoined the audience. “Give him a hand.”
Then, “Ring of Fire” happened [R.I.P. June, Johnny and Merle]—with everyone on their feet, singing, dancing and rocking out. Another mosh pit opened, too, closer to the stage, and I saw an older man with grey hair get clocked square in the face by these extremely large dudes windmilling through at anyone in their path as they rocketed and stomped from one side of the circle to the other.
Many appeared inebriated.
After the band finished, Hidalgo, Jr. tossed out his drumstick and several plastered and fired-up fans dove for it, thrashing wildly no matter who they struck in the process. I managed to get a hand on it, but let go somewhere amid the drunken fury.
The house lights came back on.
Hank Williams bellowed over the house speakers.