Riot Fest: Social Distortion

by Anthony Kuzminski

Congress Theater Chicago, IL
October 6, 2011

Since 2005 Riot Fest has grown by leaps and bounds in Chicago from humble beginnings to this year's epic line-up covering many diverse shades of rock and punk and even had a day celebration in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier. The shows cover several venues throughout the Chicago area with the Double Door and Congress Theater talking in most of the shows of note. That being said the Bottom Lounge was home to a sold out performance by the legendary punk band X who performed their classic 1980 record Los Angeles in its entirety opening night. The first night at the Congress was Thursday October 6th with Social Distortion headlining and a slew of other notable acts. The opener to make the biggest impression on the audience was Chicago's own the Tossers who performed a vitalizing 45-minute set. Despite all the appeal that Celtic music has these days, the Tossers actually started as a group in 1993, ahead of Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys. Their Riot Fest set may have been lean but the six piece band howled with fervor. Drummer Bones (no last name, just Bones) was solid and storming while Aaron Duggins (on tin whistle/ penny whistle) helped makes the melodies alluring to their brand of Celtic music. However, it was Rebecca Manthe on violin who stole the show. Her performance was serene, sexy and splashy as she proved to be as integral to the Tossers as Eddie Van Halen to Van Halen. Her hands and head were hypnotizing as she drove the band's set. Those fortunate to see the Tossers will ensure this isn't the last time they bear witness to their magic.

After a brief set, Social Distortion took to the stage for what was an 80-minute set. Never one to take a page from Springsteen, Social Distortion has always been about making a walloping impact in a short but sweet set. It's hard to believe the band has been in existence for thirty-three years. The sole original member, Mike Ness, strode out onto the stage in a black shirt, suspenders and fedora hat. His hair was slicked back and even though it's not a sleeveless shirt displaying his tattoos, he was still in the zone when it came time to perform. Opening with the instrumental Road Zombie from their 2010 Top-5 record, Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes it served merely as a warm up before Ness strolled over to the microphone and Bad Luck began. The first stone cold classic of the evening was every bit as mesmerizing as it's ever been. Ness sung from his gut twisting and turning his emotions into a gnawing vocal that largely defines Social Distortion. Being in a punk or metal band was never meant to be a career move but for people like Mike Ness and Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), it was a path from which they never swerved. Despite not having the bodies they once had, they still instill each performance with heart and for the lack of physicality that used to occur have been channeled into performance and Ness and his four backing musicians reminded us of this time and time again.

The sixteen songs shifted between classics and songs from Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes. Nickels and Dimes featured David Hidalgo, Jr. on drums who has only been with the band since last year yet his heavy-handed pounding felt right at home in these songs. His machine gun drumming on 1945 was also breath taking. Despite a largely revolving door of members, when the lights go out, Social Distortion finds a way to have the songs become bigger than them, Story of My Life and Ball and Chain stirred up the crowd to the point where there were several body surfers and moshing occurring as the band performed some of the most seminal alternative punks classics of the last twenty years. As the crowd flew their fists in the air, the band displayed menacing performances to give the vintage line-ups a run for their money. Reach for the Sky from Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll was delivered in a more nuanced and relaxed manner. While Social Distortion shows have been criticized for the rather lengthy mid-section of mellower and mid-tempo songs, the arrangement of Reach for the Sky was a counterpoint to the bleeding lyrics. Ness may not have screamed at the to of his lungs or had the stage shake, but his composed vocal performance was in many ways more punk than the original version as it allowed the audience to fully grasp and digest the soul bearing lyrics.

The end of the main set had three of the final five songs from 2010's Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes. This may have proven to be tedious for some in the audience as it slowed the momentum gained up to this point. That being said, each song was delivered in a spirited performance that was hard to turn your back on. "Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown" houses the vintage Social Distortion DNA within it and the guitar firepower was not in shortage with Ness providing his best six-string work of the evening. "California (Hustle and Flow)" and Can't Take It with You" were both performed with two backing singers who added soul and overall dressed the songs up. These newer numbers may have benefitted from being performed earlier in the set but regardless the performances were unflinchingly grand.

For the encore, the band brought their gut-punk rendition of Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire which was downright sinister. This rendition is so steeped in people's consciousness; this is the rendition many of them are most familiar with. Like Rocking in the Free World by Pearl Jam, Social Distortion is almost defined by the song even though they didn't write it because of the way they infect the song with their punk sensibilities. There are no shades of gray in a Social Distortion performance; it's full on rebellious performance to this day and even though portions of the set may be paced slower than before, they still pump rock n' roll in their veins and their Riot Fest performance was one that proved to be tough to match for those who followed.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter

Riot Fest: Social Distortion

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