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Social Distortion / Street Dogs / Backyard Babies
February 28th, 2005 - The NorVa, Norfolk, VA
Live Review by Travis Becker

A bill as strong as the one I took in on Monday night is a rarity in Virginia.  Social Distortion, Street Dogs and Backyard Babies all came to play, so I'll follow suit and get down to business.  Being an opening band is a tough lot.  Most of the audience is not there to see you and would just assume that you get through your thirty minutes as quickly as possible, if you have to perform at all.  It's not uncommon to see opening acts met with indifference or outright hostility from rabid fans of whichever band they came to see.  Unfortunately, it's also common to see these bands respond in kind with a workman-like yet uninspired performance.  When Boston's own Street Dogs hit the stage to open for Social Distortion at the NorVa in Norfolk, VA on Monday night, they turned that trend on its ear.  Not only that, they left it lying beaten on the floor at the back of the room, its only company those few unfortunates who didn't fare so well in the circle pits the Street Dogs finally incited.  There was a freezing drizzle falling all day outside of the venue where many patrons had waited for the better part of an hour, but the reception for this particular opening band was warm by its conclusion thanks to a working class effort and a blistering set of shout-along barroom Punk Rock.
Singer, Mike McColgan, who sprinted onto the stage with both boots and a football scarf, led the charge.  The tiny stage was no match for McColgan' s boundless energy and soon it was clear that it would not contain him. Bounding around the stage, he weaved in and out among his band mates who never blinked or missed a note, despite the cyclone laying waste to the stage.  Soon, two microphone stands had been demolished and McColgan had commandeered the guitarist's backup mic.  The impassioned singer frequently leapt from the stage and stood face to face with his audience imploring them to sing along and pump their fists in the air.  What started as a small crowd of loyal Street Dogs fans soon spread throughout the front of the audience and halfway back through the packed crowd until they were jostling more reticent observers who were forced to use every trick in the book to keep their beers upright and off of the floor.  A heartfelt dedication of the song "Fighter" to the local Navy fire and rescue department further tightened McColgan's grasp on the audience he was working so hard to win over.  The bands roots are in the working class and the Unions and they proved it by working hard to win the crowd and succeeding in uniting them.

While McColgan was the focal point of the Street Dogs set, he was equaled in performance if not showmanship by the rest of the band.  The driving rhythm section displayed a professionalism rarely seen in Punk music and the guitars never let up.  Just for a moment, Johnny Ramone appeared in stereo up on the stage.  None of the acoustic or mellower diversions that punctuate the Street Dogs albums were included in the set list this night, it was all full speed ahead like the train that began the opening song, "Savin Hill."  The band ran through a good selection of songs from their new release, "Back to the World", and some fan favorites from 2003's album, "Savin Hill".  They even managed to work in some crowd-pleasing covers, notably "Commando" by the Ramones and the Clash's "Bank Robber" which segued nicely into their own, "Two Bottles of Sorrow".  The sound was mixed expertly for their set.  The power in the music dominated but the trademark bellow of McColgan was always clear and audible.  The four-piece band, featured on "Back to the World", was augmented with a second guitar player, which bolstered the overall sound and filled the whole room.  It was an, "in the-pocket" performance more typical of a band that has been together much longer.

A big part of live performance is connecting with the audience and Street Dogs made that connection.  Whether it was standing in the very midst of the crowd or using the shoulders of the front row onlookers for support as the singer pulled himself up onto a guardrail, the Street Dogs made it clear that they weren't performing for the crowd, we were all in it together.  It was a fitting end to the set as McColgan scaled a ten-foot stack of PA equipment and ordered the controller at the light board to raise the house lights so he could see the audience.  Soon he had the entire sold out crowd chanting with him to, "Bring them up!"  A lot of Social Distortion fans may have gone into last night's show not knowing who the Street Dogs were, but they left with a trip to their local record store on the agenda for the next morning.  Last night, everyone was an honorary resident of Boston for those thirty minutes, and by the end, those in the converted choir were letting the band know that they could call Virginia home anytime. Street Dogs seized their opportunity and without doubt left Norfolk, Virginia connected to many more fans than when they arrived.      

Backyard Babies were up next.  They looked like underground refugees from LA circa 1986 or so, like they had been shopping at LA Guns' garage sale.  Backyard Babies have actually been around since 1987 and are much bigger Punk Rock stars in their native Sweden.  Guitarist Dregen was a co founding member of the influential Swedish proto-Punks, the Hellacopters, but BB is definitely not on the same page as Dregen's other band.  They did put on a solid show, though.  Dregen is a flashy guitarist and he carries the band for the most part.  He also does the Chuck Berry hop as good as anyone I've seen.  The most spectacular thing about BB, however, was their amazing Roadie who soundchecked all of the instruments and acted as tech for every musician on the stage.  He played Facelift-era Alice in Chains during the guitar test and during mic-check he demonstrated his vast knowledge of English that consisted almost entirely of four-letter words.  Backyard Babies were a solid middle of the bill, but I couldn't help feeling that the crowd found them a little out of place and never got fully into them.

Social Distortion came out for the main event and left it all on the stage.  Social D has been a much-maligned band over the years.  Every time Mike Ness, the bands founder and leader, gets the band into high gear some crushing tragedy befalls them.  Whether it's prison or drug addiction or, recently, founding member Dennis Danell's tragic death from a brain aneurysm, something always seems to derail their success.  When Ness and Social D released, "Sex, Love, and Rock and Roll," this past fall, they showcased a more optimistic side of the band and the announcement that a tour would follow was cause for optimism among the bands legions of followers.  And legions they are.  They crowd at the NorVa consisted of kids as young as six (who Ness took time to point out during the show) to adults who had to be in their sixties and everyone in between.  The love that was shown the band was clear from the get go and the mood was almost reverential as Ness took the stage and tore into "Mommy's Little Monster."  A few more early hits followed, "Another State of Mind" and "1945", as the band, in fine form, steamrolled forward through their set.  New guitarist Johnny Wickersham was particularly impressive, keeping up with Ness who was making Punk music when the young guitar player was still in diapers.      

The rapport Ness has with his audience is remarkable.  He is at once both deified and gigantic and at the same time ultimately accessible and sincere.  He conversed with the fans in attendance throughout the performance, at one point joking that he would have been king of the trailer park in a neighboring city.  The love was mutual, women and men alike sang along, connecting with the man that had probably helped them get through an awkward high school life or whose songs had played on the tape deck of their Mustang when they conceived their children.  A few selections from "Sex, Love, and Rock and Roll" followed along with a new song that Ness hinted would be included on a future release.  It was the only song to which the bulk of the assembled mass did not know every word.  Ness played lead parts brilliantly and his vocals were impressive, sounding even better than on the band's recorded releases.

After a few more songs and stories from Ness the band left the stage with a sincere thank you and the usual encore rituals followed.  The band returned promptly and tore into a rendition of "Nickels and Dimes".   The transcendent song writing of Mike Ness gleamed like a supernova in its universal appeal.  Songs of loss, sorrow and redemption played equally to the crowd who felt every emotion right along with him.  Then came "Ring of Fire," and the 1800 people crammed into the NorVa reacted with elation as the very foundations of the building shook.  Johnny Cash would have been proud indeed.  As the crowd saluted him and the band began to leave again, Ness felt the love and signaled the group back onto the stage for one last song, a rousing audience sing along of "Story of My Life."  Social D didn't need to work to win the crowd; the people in attendance were there to pay homage to their heroes.  And they deserved it, Social Distortion deserves a place not only among the greatest Punk bands of all time, but among the greatest American bands of all time. 

Street Dogs

Purchase Street Dogs music and listen to samples.

Visit the official site for Street Dogs

Check Travis Becker's 5 Star review of Street Dog's latest CD Back to the World!

Backyard Babies

Purchase Backyard Babies music and listen to samples.

Visit the official site for Backyard Babies

Social Distortion

Purchase Social Distortion's music and listen to samples.

Visit the official site for Social Distortion

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