Social Distortion – live

London Shepherd’s Bush Empire,
7/7/11

social_distortionFor British Social Distortion fans, the band’s shows are like hot summers – we’re lucky if we get one every few years. Three UK dates (all in London) in the last decade is hardly an impressive track record, but it does lend tonight’s show a sense of occasion, with all manner of punks, greasers and rockabilly types lining the street and pubs outside the Empire. Young or old, they’re a devoted bunch; a fact underlined when Social D frontman Mike Ness invites a couple of kids onstage during the band’s encore. They’ve travelled from Glasgow and Manchester, and like the rest of us, they look pretty damn stoked to be here.

Crazy Arm sound huge for a bunch of skinny guys from Devon. Like the headliners, they’re blessed with the ability to craft songs that are anthemic without being overblown, and the likes of ‘Still To Keep’ and ‘Broken By The Wheel’ are infused with a frenetic folk-punk energy that betrays their rural roots. The applause gets louder with every song, and it’s well deserved, especially from such a partisan crowd.

Cynical folks among us may argue that what we witness tonight is really The Mike Ness Band, but with all due respect to past and present members, Ness has always been the driving force (and main songwriter) behind Social Distortion. It’s doubtful that the Empire will see a louder sing-along in 2011 than that which greets third song ‘Story Of My Life’, and rightly so; for these songs are indeed soundtracks to the frontman’s life of struggle, tragedy and eventual redemption. There’s no bullshit with these guys, and not much in the way of pointless banter; they just rock out with the energy and conviction of a band half their ages, with Ness and guitarist Jonny ‘2 Bags’ Wickersham frequently soloing away down the front into the faces of a sweat-drenched, sold out crowd.

Given the sheer number of classics in their canon, it’s debatable as to whether a perfect Social Distortion set-list could ever exist, but tonight they get pretty close. Renditions of ‘Dear Lover’ (from 1996’s underrated ‘White Light, White Heat, White Trash’) and ‘So Far Away’ are both very welcome surprises, as is the sound of the crowd singing the opening guitar line to ‘Don’t Drag Me Down’. Old standards like ‘Mommy’s Little Monster’ and ‘1945’ are still shot through with anti-authoritarian vigour, whilst at the other end of the timeline, a couple of female backing singers are brought on to add a soulful edge to ‘California (Hustle And Flow)’.

These old road-dogs have come a long way since their fury-fuelled 1980s heyday, but they’ve got no end of stories to tell, and a damn fine way of telling them. Here’s hoping for their swift return to these shores.

Alex Gosman