Social Distortion. Chuck Ragan. Ogden Theatre. 12.02.11

We’ve been coming to Denver for 26 years!‘  For over a quarter century, Mike Ness and a revolving cast of characters have been on the road, bringing punk rock to the masses.  It was 1978 when Ness formed Social Distortion around his love of British punk rock, American rock ‘n roll and the original man in black, Johnny Cash.  In the decades since then, the ‘Social D sound‘ has influenced countless bands.  The hard living lifestyle — the drugs, the road and the ruin — have taken their toll on too many in the punk rock scene, including many members of Social Distortion, as well as the bands that followed in their footsteps.  Ness almost succumbed to the excesses of the 80’s himself.  Yet, here we are in 2011, with his 50th birthday looming closer than anyone would have imagined, and the man continues to pack ’em in — three nights at the Ogden this weekend, two of them sold-out, the other pretty damn close — and not one person walking away disappointed.

Last year the band spent a night performing in front of 5,000 people at the Fillmore Auditorium. Earlier this year the band headlined the 16,000-person Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine, CA.  So to see them at the relatively small and intimate Ogden Theatre was a real treat.  With so many songs in their repertoire, and with over 4 hours of performance time over 3 nights, set list selection probably proved to be a daunting task.  How do you make everyone happy and still mix it up for those hardcore fans that dedicate a weekend of nights to your show?   As impossible as it might sound, they did a great job on Friday night of including material from every release since ’83‘s Mommy’s Little Monster.   Highlights from the main set, measured by crowd reaction (and personal preference), included Bad Luck, Another State of Mind, Story Of My Life, I Was Wrong and Dear Lover, but there wasn’t a bad sounding song in the set.  The band Ness has assembled behind him are a group of seasoned professionals, and the Ogden sound staff were first class on Friday — one of the best sounding sets of the year.

Mike Ness as a man is almost larger than life.  So many in the audience have this deep connection with the music and the myth, but when the man tried to engage in conversation, the room fell silent.  When asking if anyone buys CDs anymore, because he wanted to know if he should keep making them, he received no clear answer.  When he started talking about a recent Avalanche game, the silence had him questioning what city he was in.   And when he starting talking about the ‘crazy‘ kids with tattoos — ‘going right to the neck, instant bad-ass.‘ — he seemed his age for the first time. For this reason, it’s good that Ness prefers to tell his stories through song.  The encore, with female backup singers, and the finale, with Prison Bound and Ring of Fire, erased those few uncomfortable moments.  As everyone filtered out into the snow-covered, ambulance-clad warzone that was Colfax, I doubt anyone even realized they didn’t hear Ball and Chain.

Social D are known for booking incredible opening acts (last year was Frank Turner and Lucero) and this year was no exception.  California (via UK?) garage-rockers Suedehead played a short, but inspired set before introducing former Hot Water Music frontman Chuck Ragan.  Flanked on each side — Joe Ginsberg on stand-up bass and Jon Gaunt on fiddle — Ragan performed quite a bit of material from this year’s excellent Covering Ground.   Mix a smoking-hot fiddle solo with one-part acoustic folk, one-part gasoline-soaked vocal, one part punk rock — throw in a little harmonica — and you get an extremely strong crowd reaction for an artist that deserves to be headlining the Ogden.  Ending with a couple tracks from 2007‘s Feast or Famine was a great shout-out to the fans in the crowd as well.  If you are catching this tour in another city (or tonight in Denver), be sure to get there early.  Ragan really added something special to a great night of music.

Chuck Ragan Setlist (partial):
Nomad By Fate
Nothing Left To Prove
Let It Rain
Wish You On The Moon
You Get What You Give
Meet You In The Middle
The Boat
California Burritos

Social Distortion Setlist:
Road  Zombie
Bad Luck
King of Fools
So Far Away
Another State of Mind
Machine Gun Blues
Mommy’s Little Monster
Story Of My Life
Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown
I Was Wrong
Reach for the Sky
Dear Lover
Nickels and Dimes

California (Hustle and Flow)
Can’t Take It With You
Prision Bound
Ring of Fire