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Social Distortion goes soft (not)

House of Blues, Boston, November 1, 2010

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Has Social Distortion gone soft? Original SD member and lead singer Mike Ness was decked out in a dress jacket, white shirt and suspenders looking pretty spiffy. The jacket quickly came off before the band even tore into their first song, but don't worry that the punk band with a country bent has gone off the rails.

Social Distortion has been inactive in recent years. In fact, when "Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes" drops in January 2011, that will be their first disc since 2004's "Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll." But make no mistake about it, the Orange County band is not resting on its laurels.

Ness and his band mates were out in force for 100 minutes, covering old and new and doing just about everything quite well. In fact, two of the first three songs - The Creeps (I Just Wanna Give You) and Mommy's Little Monster come from the 1983 disc "Mommy's Little Monster." The songs may be closing in on 30 years old, but it sure didn't sound like it.

Social Distortion did not feel a need to rev everything up and be fast and furious either. Ball and Chain was slowed down a chunk with Ness' vocals coming through clearly as they did most (but unfortunately not all) of the night. The song was a good change of pace.

Ness made it clear that this band enjoyed its country roots. "This wouldn't be a Social Distortion show without a Hank Williams song," Ness told the faithful before lacing into Alone and Forsaken. It was certainly a rough version of the song with the sound far more punk than country.

The Hank cover was one of several from the upcoming release (the song was released way back in 1992 as a Japanese bonus track to "Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell," but presumably is newly recorded), including Bakersfield and Still Alive, a catchy, upbeat anthemic song.

Ness, who once upon a time released a solo country disc, did not stop there. Social D also turned in a spirited, rousing version of the closing song, Ring of Fire, made famous by the man who symbolizes the punk ethos in country, Johnny Cash.

Ness took a chunk of leads with his exacting style, while Jonny "2 Bags" Wickersham also ratcheted up the songs with his more furious playing. Drummer David Hidalgo Jr., son of a Los Lobos founder, established a solid beat throughout.

Curiously, one of the group's signature songs, Story of My Life, was omitted from the set list. While the song would have been welcomed, it was not as if the band was lacking in material. Nor did it ultimately affect the enjoyment of the show. Whether old or new or in between, Social Distortion, perhaps a little older and wiser, is aging well.

This was an evening where it behooved the crowd to get there early. Lucero preceded Social Distortion with a mixture of hard-edged and slower-paced songs. Lead singer Ben Nichols told the crowd he liked the slower songs, and he made that clear.

The Memphis-based punky/rootsy/rock band changed it up by utilizing a two-man horn section on several songs, adding a lot of punch.

Lucero was at its best when it deviated from the set list. A stretched-out That Much Further West was the most engaging song of their 40-minute stint. This was not a gig that built to any sort of climax, but the individual songs worked.

The real gem was the opening act, Frank Turner, who was personally picked by Ness to be on the tour. The British singer was on fire throughout with an engaging bunch of songs and a winning stage presence. He has a commanding voice with a punky delivery spewing out the vocals. His vocals were consistently mixed above the music, a good move because he puts a lot of himself into the songs. And his backing quartet were up to the task in delving into punky, country and hard-edged folk sounds.

Turner's high-energy display served him quite well because the good-sized crowd for him readily clapped along and participated without much pandering at all. That was not needed. Turner should have left Boston with a lot more fans.