Sunday, June 29, 2008

Live: Mike Ness

One one hand it's a shame that Mike Ness couldn't sell more tickets in Tucson, a burg I always considered a Social Distortion kind of town, but then again, I prefer to see shows stuffed in a sweaty club. The magic of live music tends to dissipate a bit as the venue gets larger, and while Club Congress was bursting tonight, I'm glad it won out over the originally scheduled Rialto Theatre.

Performing under his own name (though two other Social Distortion members were in his four-piece back-up band) Ness toes the line of honkey-tonk and rockabilly. But be sure: he loses no toughness in the presence of pedal steel, upright bass and harmony vocals. The tattooed and ferocious rebel comes through no matter which songs he's playing.

While I've counted Social Distortion among my favorite bands for well past a decade now (the first show I saw in Tucson was Social D, with a somewhat incongruous opening set from the Old 97's), I also have to say that Mike Ness solo isn't some vanity trip that involves simply throwing on a cowboy hat.

Tonight's show drew mostly from Cheating At Solitaire, his 1999 record that remains an overlooked but triumphant set of rough and twangy songs that gave country music a dose of attitude not seen in far too long. His follow-up never hit me as hard, but as a covers record it more than pays homage to the country & western and rockabilly songs that fed his youth.

Two of those covers opened the show, Wayne Walker's "All I Can Do Is Cry" and Carl Perkins' "Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing." Next was a self-penned song Ness introduced as a tribute to early Johnny Cash songs, "Ballad of Lonely Man."

It was a great opening, but the band then ripped through eight Cheating songs in a row, setting the bar higher and higher with each one, and taken together they made a pretty strong argument that the solo Ness should've been playing to thousands instead of hundreds. The title ballad led into his barn-burner rockabilly version of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," and then to the down-and-dirty "Devil In Miss Jones." He twanged it up next with "Rest of Our Lives" and the Hank Williams classic "You Win Again" and then hit the (almost reformed) outlaw portion of the night: "Dope Fiend Blues," "Misery Loves Company" and "Crime Don't Pay."

Ness finally dipped into the Social D catalog at the end of the set, playing "Down Here with the Rest of Us," stripped of a layer of distortion and a bit of menace, before giving his honky-tonk reading of his calling card, "Ball and Chain." The Under the Influences version never did much for me, but live Ness strayed even further from the path for the lyrics, and his new phrasing crystalized for the song's potential as a full-on country weeper, with the forlorn jumping out in front of the anger.

For the encore, Ness opened up with a new song that I wish I could find on a bootleg or demo version somewhere. He introduced "I Think I'll Stay" by saying the crowd looked like a bunch of criminals, and that he bet all those bad boys would like to someday find a good girl, instead of the trainwrecks they're with. To do that, he said, you'll have to make some changes, and then the hardened punk rocker lit into a country ode to fidelity that's more or less the tattooed version of Adam Sandler's "Growing Old With You." And it was incredible.

The show closed out with "Charmed Life" from Cheating and then a cover of "I Fought The Law," a song Mike Ness was born to play.

My only complaint is this: Couldn't he have brought along his special guest from the Jersey show?

Mike Ness - Don't Think Twice (live, Bob Dylan cover, Woodstock 1999)
Get the whole set as a zip.
(From the amazing SDSickBoy site)


Mr. Chair said...

When Cheating at Solitaire came out when I was in college, it was my default CD to play on the stereo for most of a year.

Catfish Vegas said...

Aye. That was among my most heavy-rotation albums for quite a long time. It's really an overlooked triumph.

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