Social Distortion’s famed logo is a skeleton tipsily holding a martini glass. Like that cocktail, last night’s Social D show in Houston held an intoxicating blend of ingredients: one part Mexican garage rock, one part bluegrass thrash and a heavy dose of Celtic punk, shaken, not stirred and served up by the California cowpunk legends.
Mike Ness and company closed out a massive night of music which featured co-headliners Flogging Molly and support from The Devil Makes Three and Le Butcherettes. The Revention Music Center show was just the second of more than 30 scheduled dates for this stacked tour package. At times, the blend was a little uneven, but in the end, the potent offering sent fans away woozy from five hours of diverse punk rock.
Five songs into the set, standing before a backdrop which recognized Social Distortion’s 40 years as a band in 2019, Ness addressed the eager crowd and commented on the tour, the first co-headlining run the group has done since the early 1990s.
“This is the second night of the tour. We haven’t done this in a long time because, well, I don’t know why. We had to find a band that we can jibe with,” he said and noted that Flogging Molly was a perfect fit.
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Although music started at 6:25 p.m., while it was broad daylight outside, the hall was still packed when Social Distortion kicked off its set just after 10 o’clock with “So Far Away,” from its defining 1990 self-titled album. It offered more than a dozen songs spanning four decades. Two consecutive songs in particular bridged the years. Ness introduced “Over You” as a new track and teased to the crowd, as he did in a Houston Press interview, the band's plans to record its new album in January. The song is new, but Social D’s legions already know it, since the band has been playing it live for awhile now. That one was followed by one of the band’s oldest tunes, the anti-war anthem “1945.” Ness said he wrote it in history class his senior year of high school in 1980, a couple of weeks before dropping out and chasing music history.
He’s one of the original punks, who last night recalled how critics of the day said the music would never last when Social Distortion and other seminal bands of the genre were just cranking up an unstoppable force. So, when the moment calls for change, he does the punk thing and advocates hard for it. Last year around this time, Ness was involved in an altercation with a Trumper at a show. Last night, he simply said “I’m an American, and I care,” and took a few moments during “Reach For the Sky” to unfurl a Texas flag and stump for Beto O’Rourke.
“He’s got some good ideas to make this a better country,” Ness said.
The night was mostly about the music and the fans heard the hits. “Don’t Drag Me Down” appeared mid-set, surrounded by offerings like “Gimme The Sweet and Lowdown” and the show-closer “Story of My Life.” Besides endorsing the state’s preeminent presidential candidate, Ness’s other notes on Texas included an observation on Houston’s “fucked up” traffic, which drew a rousing reaction, and his opinion that Houston’s crowd was much better than the sleepwalkers who attended the Dallas show on opening night. That, of course, was met with an even more raucous reaction.
Flogging Molly’s got a Houston connection, since fiddler Bridget Regan has a brother living here. It may not be the only reason, but Flogging Molly’s Houston sets always have the feeling that we’re a special audience for the Irish punk act.
“I’ve learned one thing about Texas,” said the band’s front man, Dave King, just two songs deep. “I don’t need this fucking jacket anymore!” Then he dropped the coat and picked up the gauntlet, commenting on the bill and how excited he and his band mates are for the full tour.
Last night’s dozen songs just built upon the good vibes Flogging Molly seems to share with Houston, beginning with set opener “Drunken Lullabies” and ending with a brilliant audience sing-along to “If I Ever Leave This World Alive.” In between, King entertained us with background on songs like “Tobacco Island” (the Brits tried to wipe out the Irish centuries ago but their efforts were in vain, he said with a laugh) and turned the pit into a frenzy with “Devil’s Dance Floor,” “What’s Left of the Flag” and “Seven Deadly Sins.” He was generous with the mike, turning it over to bassist Nathen Maxwell and Regan, King’s wife, for a couple of selections. He dedicated “Float,” which ends with the refrain, “I’m a ripe old age, just doing the best I can,” to tour mate Mike Ness.
The opening acts, Le Butcherettes and The Devil Makes Three, played shorter sets than the co-headliners and their offerings were marred by technical issues. Le B started its set before the end of the six o’clock news and, as always, were like an Ayahuascan fever dream come to life. Vocalist Teri Gender Bender marched across the stage in a ceremonial headdress, which was soon lost to her spastic headbanging, and she and the band launched the entire night’s music with a scathing version of “Burn the Scab,” which was followed by “Bang!” from 2011’s Sin Sin Sin, a song this particular music fan has been waiting to hear live for some time. But the 20-minute set was plagued with sound issues, with guitars cutting in and out periodically.
Le Butcherettes’ too-brief set was followed by a 50-minute delay to The Devil Makes Three. Vocalist Pete Bernhard apologized for the wait and the band led with “The Bullet,” which charged hard and re-centered the crowd on the music. The bluegrass/folk punk act performed a spirited and mostly glitch-free set (kudos to the sound tech who gamely held a cord in place while squatting onstage so we could all hear Lucia Turino’s marvelous upright bass for “St. James Infirmary”). But songs on the opening night’s set list (a cover of “War Pigs”?!?!) were missing from the Houston set, possibly because of the long delay. We did get foot-stompin’ renditions of the band’s best-loved tunes, like “Old No. 7” and “Pray For Rain,” as well as the Robert Johnson cover “Drunken Hearted Man” and “Hallelu,” the gospel-tinged ditty with the telling line, “They say Jesus is coming, he must be walking, he sure ain't running.”
Personal Bias: The first Flogging Molly song I ever heard was “Drunken Lullabies” and I first heard it while watching my then-teenaged son attempt a 360 varial McTwist on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. That video game’s soundtrack and others in the series nourished his love for music and a couple years later we saw Flogging Molly live for the first time at Vans Warped Tour’s 2004 Houston stop. I’ve seen them numerous times since. Not counting my kids’ own bands or the incomparable Billy Joel, I’ve seen Flogging Molly live more than any other act. Their 2008 set at Warehouse Live ranked atop my all-time favorite concerts (the Piano Man’s included!) until it was supplanted by Paul McCartney’s 2012 show at Minute Maid.
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Last year, I interviewed the band’s front man, Dave King, ahead of a Houston show. Flogging Molly has been an active band since the end of the last century. They’ve toured across the globe - four continents this year alone, he said last night - and King has spoken with countless music writers from every corner of the world. Of everyone I’ve interviewed, he’s the one musician who, whenever answering whatever silly question I posed, referred to me by name before launching into his response. “I’ll tell you, Jesse,,..” he said in his Irish lilt, or “That’s a good question, Jesse! “
It’s a small thing but it speaks volumes about the degree to which this band connects with its die-hard fans. They’re never too busy for a post-show photo with fans or to hit the New Potato for a stout or two after yet another thrilling Houston set. After all the history, the bonding between my son and I which their music fostered, the never disappointing, ultra-energetic live sets and the music that speaks so directly to the human condition, I can’t imagine a scenario where I wouldn’t love this band right until the day “The Likes of You Again” is playing at my own wake.
The Crowd: Punks who enjoy smoking. The Revention staff had to widen the front patio smoking area for the crowd two or three times as the night and several packs of Camels, American Spirits and Marlboros wore away.
Random Notebook Dump: The day before last night’s show, our friends at Cactus Music declared in an
Instagram post that for every $10 a shopper spent in the store, they could claim two tickets to the show. I drove
to the store, did some early Christmas shopping and nabbed a half-dozen tickets for family and friends. There’s nothing wrong with paying face value to support one’s favorite touring acts, but c’mon, a bargain is a bargain. We got six tickets for one-tenth the price and supported local record store business. Sharing all this not as a brag, but because Cactus was offering the same deal for next weekend’s extravaganza featuring George Clinton, Galactic and Fishbone. The store still had a brick of tickets a couple of days ago, so funk lovers of Houston take note.