There aren't too many guys in recent years that had as big of an impact on the Orange County punk scene as Mike Conley, ex M.I.A. front man and owner of Avalon Bar in Costa Mesa. Given that statement, I should have been more prepared for the overwhelmingly packed scene that awaited me behind the entrance curtain at the House of Blues.
The night was a celebration of the life and times of a man that was taken from us far too early. In support of Mike Conley's family, Orange County punk fans were blessed to share a loud, sweaty night with friends of Conley the likes of Naked Soul, Jigsaw, Cadillac Tramps, Kevin Seconds, Social Distortion and everyone's favorite lisping punk rock provacateur Jello Biafra.
A gathering of fans new and old swarmed every crack of the venue. Above the hooting and hollering at the bar, the fuzzy washed out 80's footage of Conley raging on stage with M.I.A. back in the good ol' days put a smile of the faces of some old punks long enough to make them ignore the beer in their hands for a few minutes.
The show started with a bang from crowd pleasing sets by the tribute to Naked Soul as well as Jigsaw, who got the crowd plenty riled up as they took turns thrashing and wailing on beautifully dissonant chords.
With an electric mix of humor, and OG swagger, The Cadillac Tramps were next to take the stage in honor of Conley. Psychobilly girls and boys crammed the front barricades as Mike “Gabby” Gaborno played with the crowd and rallied the band to deliver the kind of kick-ass old school swingin' punk that the Tramps do best. They were joined on stage by Johnny Wickersham of Social Distortion who added some great guitar licks to songs like “Bone Dry” and plenty of their great cataloge from the 90s. A personal highlight for me was when Gaborno unbuttoned his shirt and pulled out some fat that appeared to have a smiley face with X'ed out eyes tattooed on it. Very sexy.
As Cadillac Tramps exited the stage, I sat near the bar and got to hear a few guys talking about going to M.I.A. shows and meeting Conley and what a nice guy he was. Every story that came and went made me even more disappointed that I never got the chance to meet him.
Finally, the curtain opened up on Social Distortion and the packed crowd went wild. They performed an acoustic set, which ignited a sing-along that nearly shook the building. As he strummed his guitar, Mike Ness stayed cool and calm, almost somber as he and the band gave us anthems like “Ball and Chain,” “Story of My Life” and “Ring of Fire.”
The show was closed out by a sweaty performance by Conley's former band mates, the remaining members of M.I.A. The mosh pit behind the barricade picked up speed as the band fired out tunes like “Shadows in My Life” and “You Should Know Me.” At one point it looked like a washing machine on spin cycle filled with sweaty clothes. And fellow punk icon, Kevin Seconds, joined the band on stage to deliver vocals on a few songs with them.
As if the long list of respected names on stage couldn't get any longer, the crowd really lost it when Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra trampled the stage sporting his signature grimace. I don't know if he'll ever read this, but I want to thank Jello for sweating on me so profusely during “California Uber Alles,” “Let's Lynch the Landlord” and the awesome M.I.A. tune “Murder in a Foreign Place.”
Though he's gained a few pounds since his heyday, let me be the first to attest to the fact that Biafra's still got some hops for on older guy. At one point he jumped into the crowd with the grace of a swan. As fans mobbed him in the crowd, the vibe of a true punk show was all around. That's a pretty impressive feat at a venue inside the House of Mouse. I've got to believe that somewhere in the building the spirit of Conley was watching the whole scene with a big smile.
Hopefully the Conley family was pleased to see such a big turnout. All told, the Beautiful Noise Benefit concert earned $33,231. But even the dollar sign couldn't match the amount of love and admiration that came spilling out of the audience that night for one of OC's fallen heroes.
Nate Jackson is the gatekeeper to your dreams of local dive bar stardom. If he writes about you, expect your band to be offered at least one more drink ticket than the rest of the bands on the bill. Get his attention with some groovy tunes and he might just do it. Then, boy will you feel special.