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“Why Las Vegas, you ask? Because we wanted to,” Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness declared during the band’s headlining set Friday night at the Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel. Fair enough.
The Fullerton, Calif.-based band delivered a committed, if at times tedious, hour-plus slate of songs to a packed house of enthusiastic fans. The crowd, which ranged from moshing mohawked punks to tattooed Bettie Page types to jocks in backwards UNLV caps, was an apt representation from the different scenes and musical styles Social D has hit on over its 30-plus-year career.
The set, however, catered largely to the rockabilly sensibilities that deigned them alt-rock-radio sweethearts in the 1990s. Fans who came to see their vicious, early career punk numbers like “1945” (which the band has been known to play recently) undoubtedly left disappointed; in fact, only one track -- ”Telling Them” -- was played from the 1983 debut album "Mommy’s Little Monster." But for the diehards from Social D’s brokenhearted heyday, it was a night to be savored.
Ness, newly adorned with a teardrop tattoo, and guitarist Jonny Wickersham delivered fan favorites like “Story of My Life” and “Ring of Fire” with gusto, clearly feeding off the cheers and excitement of the crowd despite having played such tracks countless times in the past decades. Even the smattering of skeptical cross-armed punks leaning against the walls could be caught bobbing their heads three or four songs into the show.
But what started as a high-energy set with just the right dose of nostalgia eventually devolved into a sentimental caricature of Social D’s prison-and-heartbreak spirit. For all its enthusiasm, the band made the critical error of weighing down the latter half of its set with slow, bloated, Clash-like tracks such as “Sometimes I Do” and “Winners and Losers.” Still, the majority of the crowd was more than happy to sing along.
But by the time Ness kicked off the encore with a self-indulgent and ill-arranged Hank Williams cover (hint: using both reverb and acoustic does not a punk cover make), even hardcore devotees began to beeline for the door. Luckily, Ness got them to turn back with an über-rare, foot-stomping rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.”
But with a band that's been around for as long as Social D -- and one with so cultish a fanbase -- a live show is somewhat immune to typical tropes of music criticism, to the concepts of "innovative" or even “original.” It's about a commitment to what fans love and, above all, whether the band believes in what its doing. And Social Distortion still does damn well.
“So Far Away”
“Story of My Life”
“Machine Gun Blues”
“Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown”
“Nickels and Dimes”
“Sometimes I Do”
“Winners and Losers”
“Alone and Forsaken” (Hank Williams cover)
“The Last Time (Rolling Stones cover)
“Reach for the Sky”
“Ring of Fire” (Johnny Cash cover)