On an unseasonably warm October evening, dozens of middle-aged punk rockers waited outside MTelus for veteran California-band Social Distortion to appear. The mood was festive, not only because of the balmy weather but also because a Social Distortion show is a major event for their many devoted fans.
Inside, MTelus was a hot and uncomfortably sticky sweatbox as opening artist Will Hoge hit the stage. I guess because summer is over some people have stopped wearing deodorant because, man, it was funky in there, and I’m not talking about the music! Before the show, I learned Hoge survived a devastating motorcycle accident ten years ago and is lucky to be alive. The Tennessee-native played a short set of country-sounding southern rock and roll, including his anti-Confederate anthem “Still a Southern Man.”
Country was an unusual choice of music to open a punk show. The crowd was clearly not in the mood for Hoge’s Americana style, but then Mike Ness of Social Distortion came on stage to thank everyone for “checking these guys out.” Hoge smiled, said to the crowd “I guess you have to like me now,” and proceeded to flip his middle finger at us. Finally, some punk rock attitude!
Next up, headliners Social Distortion came on below a huge poster of their mascot skeleton smoking a cigarette with his head hanging out of the window of a classic American car. The energy immediately picked up, and the crowd surfing began. These guys have been around since the late 70s, but Ness is the only original member still active in the band. The vocalist is a recovering drug addict and an inspiring frontman who sings passionately from the heart. His distinctive style and Social Distortion’s stripped-down, no-nonsense, melodic rock and roll has influenced West Coast punk artists like Green Day and Rancid.
Tracks like “Don’t Take Me for Granted” had an inspiring and uplifting message. At one point, Ness asked for a show of hands from everyone who was dumped this year. He quickly counted 99 “broken hearts.” The band makes good music to listen to after a breakup, and the survey nicely transitioned to the song “Over You.” It’s probably Ness’s emotional lyrics and troubled personal history that works well for sad, broken-hearted music. It wasn’t all “tear in my beer” tunes, however, as “Machine Gun Blues,” “Bad Luck,” and “Don’t Drag Me Down” kicked plenty of punk rock ass.
Ness is also known for his unapologetic political beliefs and anti-racist stance. Earlier this year, the singer was filmed jumping off stage to punch a pro-Trump heckler at a show in Sacramento who apparently didn’t like Ness’ political banter. No fights broke out at the Montreal show, but Ness mentioned his love for Canada and apologized for the “douchebag president” in the U.S. The band then tore into the anti-racist anthem “Don’t Drag Me Down.” The set ended with a pair of Johnny Cash covers: “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire.” Cash is obviously a huge influence on Ness, who borrowed the “Man in Black’s” rockabilly style and rebellious attitude.
Although Social Distortion’s many fans were satisfied with the show, I was hoping for more unhinged punk rock mayhem. I’m not suggesting people in the crowd should get punched in the head, and violence is never justified at concerts. Punk shows are exciting when they are rowdy and unpredictable, though. Social Distortion, while giving a polished and professional live performance, seemed to be going through the motions and not delivering the intensity I expected.
Written by Rob Coles
Photography by Thomas Gentil
*edited by Danielle Kenedy