Times are good for Social Distortion

Mike Ness of Social Distortion in action May 14 at The Stone Pony. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

By Chris M. Junior

Rarely do punk rockers age gracefully.

Then again, Mike Ness isn’t your typical punk. And as he closes in on his 50s, the Social Distortion leader is enjoying the fruits of an artistic peak that many of his predecessors never achieved so deep into their careers, while at the same time expanding his stylistic palette.

Touring in support of “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” one of the band’s best albums to date, Social Distortion rolled into Asbury Park, N.J., for a May 14 gig at The Stone Pony. Technically, the show was a makeup for a called-off late 2010 gig, and the rescheduling turned out to be a blessing in disguise in more ways than one. For one thing, the band played on the Pony’s much larger outdoor stage in front of a much bigger audience than the club can hold. Also, the rescheduled show also afforded the audience a few months to get familiar with “Nursery Rhymes,” which was released earlier this year.

While the rest of his band vamped, Ness strutted onstage looking like a punk gangster, his serious expression enhanced by a thin-brimmed hat and a dark overcoat – think Johnny Ramone meets Al Capone. Ness’ suspendered dress pants and crisp, collared white shirt rounded out his classy mobster wardrobe, an all-too-appropriate visual as he fired off “Machine Gun Blues,” a song from the new album that was played early in the set.

With all due respect to Social Distortion’s past members, the current lineup is the most well-rounded in the band’s history and fully capable of replicating fan favorites such as “Bad Luck,” “Ball and Chain” and “Story of My Life” (which were all played at the Pony). But where Ness’ current cohorts really showed their superior chops was with the more dynamic, often slower and style-blending new material, most notably “California (Hustle and Flow)” and “Can’t Take It With You,” both of which featured soulful female backing vocals, just like on the new album.

Had his between-song banter been shorter and more focused, Ness probably could have squeezed in two or three more songs. But maybe he’s in such a good place in his life and career that relaxed, rambling raps are to be expected these days at a Social Distortion show, along with a good mix of well-played material covering the California-bred band’s long career.

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