with Chuck Ragan, Off With Their Heads
House of Blues, Orlando, FL • November 5, 2011
I have never been to a Social Distortion concert that wasn’t a complete sell-out and there are a couple of reasons for that:
1. The boundary-transcending band never fails to deliver a powerful punk ‘n’ roll show — even going into the third decade of its respected career.
2. They know how to choose well when it comes to support acts, giving fans more bang for their buck. I’m a firm believer in this — never underestimate the choice of an opening act! It sets the tone for the whole night! Anyone who’s sat through crap band after crap band to await the one they paid to see can attest to this!
In spite of their rather unremarkable stage presence, Off With Their Heads pass muster for their superbly unique gravelly pop punk. As melodic and catchy as anything label heads Bad Religion have written, but given a rougher edge due to Ryan Young’s sandpaper growl, the Minnesota foursome nails an opening half-hour that never falters. Perpetually on tour, almost without break, since 2008, the band has mastered the art of the 30-minute set!
Steering the pace away from the aggressive and more towards the impassioned was Chuck Ragan — whom you may know, also, as one of the leads in melodic hardcore staple Hot Water Music. With a voice packed with more rough edges than his bearded face, Ragan’s vocals should NOT work atop an acoustic guitar and accompanied by a violin and upright bass, yet somehow DO. On songs like “It’s What You Will,” the air is bespeckled with blood, sweat, and spit pushed out with the force with which Ragan sings and the crowd laps it up.
Florida loves their Gainesville boy, and for good reason. He embodies all of the contradictions of this southern-but-not-really-southern state: the swamp country upbringing, the punk rock teenage years, and the relaxed ease of adulthood — all in one incredibly likable package. His solo stuff sounds NOTHING like his old band, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still bust your ear drums… it’ll just do so more poetically, and with more heart.
Touring behind the most lackluster album (Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes) in their otherwise spectacular catalog, Social Distortion dialed back to the classics right from the get-go, opening with “1945” followed by “Mommy’s Little Monster.” You could almost hear the sigh of relief that this wasn’t gonna be a night of mellower newbies, with a couple oldies-but-goodies thrown in for good measure. Ness — joined by long time members Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham, Brent Harding, and new drummer David Hidalgo, Jr. — was in top form, defying the clock (he’ll be turning 50 next year) with both his fast-paced strumming and his occasional leaps into the air.
The House of Blues, once again, was packed in tighter than a traffic jam on a rainy day at rush hour, but once the headliners emerged — on a stage dressed to look like a street — all feelings of discomfort evaporated. The general floor area began its speedy orbit, and the audience began to sing along to the soundtracks of so many lives, and when the opening notes of “The Story of My Life” began, the euphoria that followed was as close as you could hope to get to a religious experience at a punk rock concert. Every voice in the house sang along at the top of the battered lungs, almost drowning out Ness, and the house lights sporadically lit us all up to acknowledge this spontaneous bond. It wasn’t just the highlight of the night, it was the highlight of the past several months for this little concert-goer.
Never ones to play longer than they need to, the band wrapped it up under the 90-minute mark with another trio of pandemonium-inducing songs that have seen many miles: “Don’t Drag Me Down,” “Prison Bound,” and their infamous cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Very few can hold a candle to the fire that burns within Mike Ness and his long-running band of pure rock ‘n’ roll badassness.