with the Road Kings
The State Theatre, St. Petersburg, FL • December 12, 1999
Mike Ness’ little sabbatical to explore his roots in country, rockabilly, and old-school rock n’ roll spawned two solo albums and an extensive tour, which finally wound down with this show in St. Petersburg. Best known as the frontman for the legendary Social Distortion, Ness has convinced a lot of naysayers that a punk rocker can stretch beyond the boundaries of that genre while still maintaining the intensity and fire of punk rock. Certainly, he seemed to convince the evenly-mixed crowd of punks and rockers at the jam-packed State Theatre, which seemed to hang on Ness’ every word through a charged set evenly split between covers and originals.
I wasn’t familiar with Ness’ openers, the Road Kings, before the show, but you can be damned sure that’s something I intend to change. This three piece out of Houston completely kicked my ass with a tight and vicious blend of rockabilly, honky tonk, and blues. They’ve got the chops of the Amazing Crowns, but they’re a bit more on the traditional side of rockabilly. Young, enthusiastic, and talented, they certainly put the lie to singer/guitarist Jesse Dayton’s introductory quip about it being “the last night of a 7-week tour, so we’re just gonna get bent. If we sound drunk, it’s ‘cause we are.” Well, boys, if you sound this good drunk, I can’t wait to hear what you’ve got when you’re sober! The Road Kings’ high octane, fuel-injectioned power was the perfect thing to get the crowd riled up for Mike Ness.
Decked out from head-to-toe in black (including his cowboy hat), Ness resembled a heavily tattooed, punk rock version of Johnny Cash as he led his band to the stage. In fact, you could almost say his presence was Cash-meets-Clash, as he struck many a Clash-like pose as he stalked the stage like a restless panther. The Cash comparisons definitely proved to be relevant, though, as a spirited cover of “Ring of Fire” got the crowd into a thrashing mood, and Ness’ between-song banter revealed simpatico tales of a lifetime of hard living. When explaining why he chose to make his latest record, the all-covers Under The Influences , Ness told the crowd that he’s spent most of his life trying to emulate his musical heroes, “not just in my music, but how I live my life. That almost killed me!”
Ness continued to wear his influences on his sleeve throughout the night, through covers like Hank Williams’ “6 More Miles” (which he introduced by saying “there wouldn’t have been a Sid Vicious if there hadn’t been a Hank Williams. Somewhere between Hank Williams and the Ramones, Social Distortion was born”), dedications (“Misery Loves Company” went out to the Dead Boys, “‘cause I think they’re all dead now”), and general inspiration (the Cash-inspired “Ballad of a Runaway Man”). Ness’ band was extremely tight, and handled the shifts between rootsy and raucous with practiced ease – the months they’ve spent together making them a near-flawless unit. Indeed, the crowd really seemed to appreciate the musicianship, but never more than when they launched mid-set into the Social D favorite, “Ball and Chain,” which easily got the best reaction of the night.
Encoring with a frenzied cover of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law,” which he quipped that he was taking back from the Clash and making it “an American song again,” Ness capped a fantastic night of storytelling, both musically and talking directly to the crowd as if they were old friends. And by the end of the show, that’s what you had to feel Mike Ness was – an old friend that just happens to know how to bring down the house. ◼