Social Distortion, Nikki Lane, and Drag The River at Fillmore Charlotte

Social Distortion with Nikki Lane and Drag The River Perform

Almost twenty years have passed since seeing Social Distortion in concert. Back on February 14 1997 I saw them at Tremont Music Hall when they were touring on their White Heat White Light White Trash album. I was about to graduate from college in the spring, just got dumped, was stressing over end of college career life decisions and basically living out my own little twenty-two-year-old melodramatic coming-of-age drama.

That show marked a pivotal moment for me. It solidified several things in my mind: (1)friendships will last longer than most relationships, I’ve been friends with people I attended that show with longer than I’ve dated most people; (2)great music can not only tell a great story, but can be a great narrative — the type Mike Ness is a proven master of (alternative music as a moniker was really dead and pointless, “We’ve been around longer than most ‘alternative’ music, back before the days you could walk into your average mall and get your little pussy pierced.” -Mike Ness in 1997), (3)and that, one day, I would write my own narratives about the music I’ve seen, the experiences I’ve had with it and what it’s meant to me. Mike Ness’ music in particular has meant a great deal to me over the years. Life takes you on strange journeys, and I’m glad that I was lucky enough to have crossed Ness’ path again as an audience member, even if it took almost twenty years.

Social Distortion’s songs are hard-boiled narratives and romantic tragedies. They are incredibly raw and honest. Songs like “Through These Eyes,” “Bad Luck,” “Ball and Chain,” “Prison Bound” and “I Was Wrong” are so well-written and performed that they are auditory experiences that truly engage the listener in the creative artistic process. They are only fully-formed artistic entities when the listener creates the visual narrative in their minds to go along with it. I’ve heard Social Distortion songs over and over, and have seen the videos, but it’s the personal life experiences and memories of the 2 times I’ve seen them in concert that are always conjured up in my mind as the visual narrative that accompanies the music. I’ve only had this experience with a handful of other bands. These bands’ power to draw one into the creative process this way elevates them to a sublime level of artistic merit.

It’s the narrative nature of Social Distortion songs that give them their unique power. While Ness is definitely a “punk” rocker, he has, over the years, embraced an outlaw country sound as well. This is no wonder, since most country music is highly narrative in nature. It was fitting that South Carolina native Nikki Lane and alt-country band Drag The River, from Colorado, played as openers. Each have a firm grasp on the narrative nature of country music, but mix it up in a punk/rock way much like Social Distortion does. Hearing and seeing Social Distortion in concert again, supported by Lane and Drag the River, was an experience that both humorously and poignantly wove itself into the main personal narrative of the evening, which was one of catching up on the stories of long-term friends not seen in long times, and sharing stories about relatives and other friends while making new ones. Both experiences are forever fused in my mind and, I’m sure, in the minds of many others who shared the experience of seeing Social Distortion that night.

“Punk rock got to have too many rules by the mid ’80s. I thought punk rock was about being an individual,” chided Ness from the stage. Social Distortion is nothing if not an example of a band engaging in their own individuality. Not only did Social Distortion play their entire self-titled 1990 album, they mixed in a Rolling Stones’ song (“Wild Horses”) as well as a Hank Williams’ one and, of course, “Ring of Fire” (which closed the concert).

Throughout, Ness told a complete narrative that expanded upon the songs off the highlighted album, as well as other Social Distortion songs from different eras. After bringing three children up on stage from the audience and talking to them about the importance of doing well in school (a highlight of the evening), but warning them to question the validity of the history lessons they will endure (in some ways the whole point of the evening), Ness and the band launched into another “kinda angry song… actually really angry song” off of White Heat White Light White Trash titled “Don’t Drag Me Down.” It was fitting as Ness introduced it as a protest song against the racism that he saw too much of while touring in the early ‘90s. It’s still relevant today, as racism is still rampant, and dangerously on the rise.

Nikki Lane, whose voice is reminiscent of Loretta Lynn’s with just a touch of Patsy Cline’s thrown in, told a brief and hilarious, story about her failed marriage and how she discovered she married a “pussy” when their van broke down because of a busted radiator hose and in response said husband decided the van had to be gotten rid of. It lead excellently into “Man Up” off her 2014 album All Or Nothin’. Lane brought Johnny “Two Bags” of Social D on stage for a duet of “Love’s on Fire” off of the same album, and even brought her mother up to sing with her to close out her set. Her set was the local-country-fried short story opening to Social Distortion’s powerful novella of songs.

Drag The River, whose very name is laden with narrative tension provided a dense guitar heavy alt-country poetry that felt at times it was dragging in a river, albeit in a good sludgy kind of way. They felt and sounded like a smarter version of Seven Mary Three, minus the pseudo-grunge growling and grovelling.

The most important theme of the night’s narrative is one that Mike Ness and Social D have been riffing on for years: time, status, money, distance and genre really do not make a difference when the human experience is considered within the context of what makes us all laugh, cry, get angry, or fall in love. Country, rock, alt-rock and punk are terms that are pretty much meaningless when a story, however personal or general, is told, and told with the type of honesty and lyricism that Mike Ness and his supporting musicians and friends displayed. The only thing that matters is the common experience that we share. It’s a truth that Social D helped me realize through their narrative of songs almost twenty years ago, and reinforced in me just a few nights ago. Something special was shared at The Fillmore that night between Social D and their audience. Something that we who witnessed it will be hard-pressed to witness again.

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