No one will ever accuse Mike Ness of being too prolific for his own good. While still the tattooed embodiment of brash West Coast punk rock as he approaches 50, the Orange County icon’s snail’s-pace writing and meticulous recording habits remain the antithesis of the genre’s cut-it-quick manner.
It took eight years for his decades-old band Social Distortion (of which he’s the only original member) to follow up its last effort for Epic with 2004’s independently released Sex, Love and Rock ’n’ Roll. Nearly seven more passed before the group, revamped yet again, readied its latest assortment, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, Ness’ first work for punk clearinghouse Epitaph Records. By contrast, his peers in Bad Religion put out three studio full-lengths and a live disc in the amount of time it took Ness to complete 10 new songs plus an instrumental.
Not that anyone complains much about the results after such absences, nor does fan interest seem to wane. The first album fully produced by the quartet’s frontman, Hard Times, arrived Jan. 18 to wide acclaim for its advances (more Stones swagger, less barking fury) amid the biggest promotional push ever accorded a Ness collection. Last month Social D made its network-television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, followed soon after by a spot on Conan O’Brien’s new TBS show and a string of tie-ins with modern-rock goliath, Los Angeles radio station KROQ.
All of that propelled Social Distortion to its highest chart bow and biggest first-week sales, as Hard Times pushed just over 46,000 copies to land at No. 4 on Billboard’s Top 200. Now the group is gaining momentum on a largely sold-out tour that launched earlier this month in Anaheim (its 70th gig at the House of Blues there), wowed in Ventura and Las Vegas and kicked off a packed three-night stand Thursday at the Hollywood Palladium before heading to rabidly anticipated stops in San Francisco and Seattle.
Having worked out set list kinks at the O.C. gig, Ness has been sticking to the same rundown from show to show, striking hard at the start with complementary early gems (ripping renditions of “So Far Away” and “King of Fools”) and ensuring die-hards get plenty of staples (biting takes on “Bad Luck” and “Ball and Chain”) before delving too deeply into the new stuff.
It’s a smart and satisfying if also somewhat timid move: Given that the circle pit for current single “Machine Gun Blues” was almost as frenzied as the one this Palladium throng whipped up for punk classic “Mommy’s Little Monster,” it’s curious why Ness, hoarsely roaring in gangster chic, didn’t have faith enough to include more new material, or at least pack in extra catalog selections. Thirteen songs plus the leadoff instrumental “Road Zombie” didn’t exactly leave the crowd roaring for more. This performance instead ground to a halt just as it was beginning to open up with the stranded storytelling of “Bakersfield,” an accordion-laced version of “Down Here (With the Rest of Us)” and a darkened handling of “Cold Feelings.”
Such missed opportunities were heightened further during the encore, via the classic-rock crunch of “California (Hustle and Flow)” and the rave-up “Can’t Take It with You,” excellent new tracks abetted live (as on record) by soul-sister backing vocals, a first for Social D. The grit and dynamics coursing through both made them undeniable highlights, yet their relative novelty here illustrates how much more Ness could achieve with such additions. Why not have used those singers sooner to enliven older tunes? Why not tack on some horns as well?
As he moves into his fourth decade of rocking, late-bloomer Ness is branching out in all new ways; another alternative hit hardly seems unimaginable. But what’s needed now is a dose of confidence, enough to believe that his moshing minions will follow his lead should he keep pushing ahead on this broadened, more commercial path.
So Far Away
King of Fools
Mommy’s Little Monster
Machine Gun Blues
Ball and Chain
Through These Eyes
Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown
Down Here (With the Rest of Us)
California (Hustle & Flow)
Can’t Take It with You
Ring of Fire
Story of My Life