Last Night: Mike Ness and Jesse Dayton at Meridian

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Mike Ness and Jesse Dayton The Meridian May 6, 2008

Better Than: The Social Distortion episode of MTV Unplugged that never happened, thank God.

Download: Jimmie Rodgers's "In the Jailhouse Now," one of the few prison-related songs Ness didn't sing

Photo by Chris Henderson

Mike Ness

Performers, especially those who mine their material from the proverbial other side of the tracks, walk a precarious line between the deeds they recount in their songs and the situations they sometimes stumble into offstage. Mike Ness is hardly a stranger to life's unfortunate twists and turns; both with Social Distortion and solo, his songs are replete with addicts and ex-cons trying, and often failing, to walk the straight and narrow.

But Ness' hard-luck characters took an unplanned back seat Tuesday to-the-all too real predicament of opener Jesse Dayton. En route from Dallas, Dayton's tour bus was pulled over in Magnolia County for the stereotypical broken taillight; the subsequent search turned up a certain illegal substance in the singer's backpack that, he said later, had been there "since I don't know when." The bus was impounded, and Dayton rewarded with a side trip to the county lockup, but due to some nifty maneuvering by his lawyer - who had him out of jail and on the road in four hours - he made the gig in time to provide some extra oomph to a set-closing medley of "Folsom Prison Blues," "Rebel Rouser" and "White Freight Liner Blues."

"I Guess Things Happen That Way" might have been a more appropriate Johnny Cash selection, but in their defense, the band was pressed for time. (Their tour manager, busted with a switchblade, wasn't quite so lucky and will have to rejoin Dayton and company down the road a piece.)

Luckily possession is still a relatively minor charge, even in Texas, and Ness good-naturedly mentioned the day's events several times during his set, at one point dedicating the lumbering "Dope Fiend Blues" to his unfortunate tourmates. Later in the set, Ness slipped a lyric about Judgement Day into the swaggering blues-rocker "Crime Don't Pay." Subtle. Ness and his four-piece, mostly acoustic band delivered a solid if unspectacular hour, dominated by gritty honky-tonk - steel guitarist Chris Lawrence really shone on Carl Perkins' "Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing," a standout from Ness' 2000 covers album Under the Influences - and characters running afoul of the law every other song or so. An incandescent cross that looked a little like the cigarette displays they (used to) sell in bars illuminated the fatalistic nature of selections such as "Misery Loves Company," delivered as a plodding ZZ Top blues with a palpable bite. You could almost call it chopped and screwed, if people still did that sort of thing. (Do they?)

Even after Ness' first encore, a countrified version of Social D's "Ball and Chain," prompted the nearly packed room into a lusty singalong, the song that resonated most was his valedictory version of "I Fought the Law," for a much different reason than because both Ness and the Clash inhabit '50s rock standby like they wrote it (or could have, anyway, if El Paso's Bobby Fuller didn't get there first). Every time I hear that song, no matter who does it, I can't help but think about the time on Cheers where Rebecca has her own run-in with the law. Once she returns to the bar, Sam breaks out a boom box with "I Fought the Law" conveniently cued up every time she walks by. Considering what happened to Dayton Tuesday, it was hard not to think of that episode. Obviously Mike Ness isn't above borrowing a page from the Mayday Malone playbook.

Personal Bias: Considerable. I've lost count of the times I've seen both performers over the years. To their credit, it never feels like enough.

Random Detail (tie): The truck pulling into the parking lot in front of me with a "Klash" custom license plate in a Social D frame, and the empty half-pint bottle of whiskey perched on a toilet bowl after the show.

By the Way: I've never seen a barbecue stand before that charges the same for ribs, brisket and burgers - five bucks across the board. - Chris Gray

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