SAYREVILLE, NJ—The night at newly and gorgeously renovated Starland Ballroom started with two sedate opening bands, folk-rockers Johnny Two Bags and the garage band, The Whigs. Then, shortly after 10 p.m., long-surviving punk rockers Social Distortion exploded on stage playing the fast-paced “Road Zombie” with its relentless drumming and its sweet ‘n’ sour guitar riffs off their latest album, Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes. Frontman Mike Ness sported a goatee and wore his now-signature black fedora which he quickly disposed of, revealing his slicked back, maturity-revealing hairline. Remember that Elvis/Morrisey pompadour of bygone days in the ’80s? They followed with three cuts off White Light White Heat White Trash, namely “Through These Eyes,” the melodious, defiant lament about hardships endured and hardships observed, then “Don’t Drag Me Down” and “Untitled.”
Reaching back to old school punk, they followed these with two cuts off Mommy’s LittleMonster, “The Creeps” and then “Another State Of Mind,” which implores the listener to “leave the past behind” in the musical masterpiece that inspired the movie of the same name. They returned to the latest album with “Machine Gun Blues,” a melodious ode to gangsterism of the 1930s, but with the typical Social Distortion admission of remorse that is characteristic of their whole body of work. “I’m sorry for the things I’ve done…I’m already gone, my life will soon be through.”
Then, some more punk rock including “Gimme The Sweet And Lowdown” and “Crown Of Thorns,” which represented a return to White Light White Heat and sums up the group’s assessment of life with the statement, “It’s no bed of roses.” Next came “Cold Feelings,” the classic California punk ballad and the only entry off Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell in the initial setlist. After the bombastic “Dear Lover,” yet another entry off White Light, came the crowd-pleaser, the much-covered Mike Ness original, “Ball And Chain,” his emblematic anthem about addiction and burdensome relationships.
Ness is a great admirer of roots music and old school country & western, thus it was inevitable that he would have Social D do a Hank Williams cover, “Six More Miles,” and call upon the audience to serve as the chorus. The set ended with “Story Of My Life,” an acknowledgment of Mike’s (and many a punk rocker’s) youthful maladjustment and the consequences which may have included some “good times” but also failures and frustrations.
Following the break, the band returned with three more songs. “Sometimes I Do” is a mantra to ambivalence delivered with almost biblical force. Then “Misery Loves Company,” a Mike Ness song from his solo album Cheating At Solitaire featuring country rock singing and some wailing guitars. They finally ended with June Carter’s immortal “Ring Of Fire,” a distinct tribute to the late Johnny Cash who popularized the song in an album in 1983.
What made this such a great concert and what makes every exposure to this band so unique, whether live or on recordings, is their from-the-heart delivery and their unique amalgam of defiance and humility—of rage and regret—to say nothing of great music!