After fronting the Orange County-roots punk band Social Distortion for nearly 20 years, the most surprising thing about singer-songwriter Mike Ness’ recently launched solo career is that it took him this long to do it.
Social D. (on hiatus) is known for a confrontational punk-rock style that, unlike most of its peers, regularly uses country and other acoustic-based styles as a launching point for its often-angry examinations of youth, family, relationships and society.
However, the punk coat, with its repetitions and inherent lack of dynamic, was all but stripped away by Ness, 37, in this solo arrangement at the El Rey, the first of three sold-out shows. The standup bass and slide guitar players — Jonny Ray Bartel and Chris Lawrence — effectively buttressed the singer’s impassioned vocals with brisk upbeat country and blues flavors.
The tattooed Ness delivered, with his trademark nasal vocals, much of the same intensity here as he does at Social D. shows, but without all the in-your-face fury.
The 90-minute show featured many of the songs from Ness’ fine debut solo release, “Cheating at Solitaire” (Time Bomb), like the Johnny Cash-inspired “Ballad of a Lonely Man,” as well as altered versions of some Social D. favorites and a few choice cover tunes, like a mournful read of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” and Cash’s “Ring of Fire”; most of them expressed similar sentiments of uphill struggle, temptation and inner conflict.The tour’s backing band, ably anchored by drummer Charlie Quintana (Bob Dylan, Joan Osborne), played with a much more laid-back, countrified approach than the on-hand fans of Social Distortion — who turned out in large numbers wearing Social D. jackets and T-shirts — were accustomed to hearing, and the crowd was thusly tempered throughout much of the performance; patrons in front of the band were seated instead of pressed up against the stage, adding to the mellow mood in the room.
But a four-song encore that included Ness performing Social Distortion’s “Bad Luck” by himself, as well as a version of “Ball and Chain” that echoed “Exile on Main Street”-era Rolling Stones, brought the house to its feet for a rousing close.