Social Distortion Breaks Out Hits, Covers, and Life Lessons at the Observatory

Social Distortion Breaks Out Hits, Covers, and Life Lessons at the Observatory
John Gilhooley

Social Distortion Observatory 9/15/15

It shouldn't be much of a surprise that the crowd at Social Distortion's 3-nights-in-four-days run at the Observatory (broken up by Travis Scott on Monday) brought out a lot of what OC has to offer. Considering that the self-titled album being celebrated/performed may be one of the most important albums in OC music history, you would think the shows should bring all types of the area's music fans to the Santa Ana venue. You'd be right.

From 16-year-old punk kids to 60-year-old tattooed ladies, cholos in their plaid workshirts to soul patch-wearing former frat boys who would fit in better at a Dave Matthews Band concert, all walks of OC life stood shoulder-to-shoulder on Tuesday night (and Sunday night, but that's a story for a different time) to watch Mike Ness sing a bunch of 25-year-old tunes.

See also: Mike Ness Looks Back, Focusing on the Past of Social Distortion

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As the band walked out to the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," it didn't matter what age the fans were or background they from, they cheered and applauded in excitement. Without delay, Ness and company immediately broke into "So Far Away" and "Let It Be Me" (the first two tracks on the classic album).

About halfway through the second song, much of the crowd realized they would be hearing the entire album in order, and anticipation began to grow as the iconic "Story of My Life" and "Sick Boys" came up next. Based on crowd and mosh pit reaction alone, it's clear that most Social D fans consider themselves to be "sick boys" regardless of how well they fit the description. That said, there was a surprisingly large section of the crowd that didn't seem terribly into it, particularly compared to other SoCal Social Distortion shows.

One of the benefits of a 37-year-old band only keeping one original member (albeit, the only one who really mattered) is that the rest of the band has a lot less mileage on them. For that reason, the 2015 version of Social Distortion sounds every bit as good as (and maybe better than) the band did 20-plus years ago. Ness hasn't lost a step on guitar (including that legendary Gibson Les Paul Goldtop), and his vocals are as gruff and powerful as ever. Sure, maybe he seems a hell of a lot happier and more sober these days than he was decades ago, but if anyone's earned that, it's him.

To roughly half of the audience's surprise, "Ball and Chain" came up next on the setlist rather than "Ring of Fire" and featured a break in the middle for Ness to explain the circumstances ("5 years off the drugs and alcohol") that led to the celebrated album. The track was followed by "It Coulda Been Me," "She's a Knockout," a discussion about love songs in punk rock as the intro to "A Place in My Heart," and "Drug Train" to close out the album. That's when things began to get interesting. "Drug Train" is the last song on the self-titled album, so would they play some of their other hits? Maybe some deep cuts? A cover or two?

Well, Social D has a tendency to play more or less the same set most nights of a tour, so for those who saw them Sunday, they knew most of what was coming. The OC legends started off with a casual time-killing jam that Ness mentioned could be a song on the heavily rumored next album before taking it back to Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell for "Cold Feelings."

From there, Ness began to explain the backstory of Social Distortion, in that they fall right between the Ramones and the Rolling Stones. After explaining that he's been listening to the Stones since he was a small child, Ness treated the crowd to a pretty awesome heartfelt cover of "Wild Horses" before breaking out one of his live go-to artists to cover with a little Hank Williams ("Alone and Forsaken," for the Hank fans out there). Sure, the non-Social D material might've turned off some fans (a few people literally left during "Wild Horses"), but Ness plays the cover songs with so much more fire and emotion even than his own material that it always makes for one of the best parts of the show.

As the set closed in on the two-hour mark, Social D gave the fans another single with "Bad Luck'" before Ness broke into a story about writing a song about a backstabbing friend rather than kicking their ass, the intro to "Far Behind" from 2007's Greatest Hits record.

Of course, there was little doubt that one of OC's most legendary bands would have to do an encore, as they were still missing that one little song from the 25-year-old album.

To begin the encore, Ness suggested that while "Far Behind" might be a 6 (out of 10) on the anger scale, they should play something that was closer to a 50. After briefly discussing the times he saw racism and his desire to leave something behind to show the future what it was like, the band blasted through "Don't Drag Me Down" as the mosh pit opened up stronger than ever.

After teasing the crowd by asking them which song they forgot and playing a game show theme while offering "$200 and a trip for two to Palm Springs" for the correct answer, Ness asked if everyone wanted to hear some Johnny Cash. Expecting "Ring of Fire," the crowd reached what might've been its peak volume for the night. Instead, the band broke into "Folsom Prison Blues" before finally giving the crowd what it wanted with the iconic missing cover song from the album of the night. People definitely mosh harder to Cash through Ness than they ever did from the man in black himself.

Without a doubt, the most adorable moment of the night came toward the end of "Ring of Fire," when Ness pulled three boys (ages 12-16) up on stage to ask them about school and tell them to pay attention in arithmetic and spelling but not history, telling them they're better off going home and looking up "what really happened" than taking the teacher's word for it. Hell, you could get way worse life advice from a rock star. And all night at the Observatory, class was in session.

Setlist So Far Away Let It Be Me Story of My Life Sick Boys Ball and Chain It Coulda Been Me She's a Knockout A Place in My Heart (Nameless Time-Killing Jam) Cold Feelings Wild Horses (Rolling Stones) Alone and Forsaken (Hank Williams) Bad Luck Far Behind Don't Drag Me Down Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash) Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash)

See also 10 Punk Albums to Listen to Before You Die 10 Goriest Album Covers 10 Most Satanic Metal Bands

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