It's always a little intimidating when going to see a show at a venue you have never been to. Will the sound be good? How are the sight lines to the stage? What will the crowd be like? Will they have decent beer/beer prices? Fortunately, the House of Blues has a fairly good reputation for providing a good concert environment, and I was not disappointed by the Las Vegas location. It helped that my friend, Dan, had been to countless shows at HoB and had told me it was a good venue. I also found it to be not too terribly different from the HoB in Orlando. And I'm sure if I ever go to the Chicago, New Orleans, New York, LA, or wherever else they have HoBs now, I won't be all that shocked to find them all to be fairly similar. For those of you in the St. Louis area, think The Pageant, but better sound. (I know, not too hard to imagine The Pageant with better sound, but that's an entirely different commentary.) And also fully stocked bars down the left and right side of the venue. (Another thing The Pageant needs to remedy.) The stage at HoB can pretty much be seen from anywhere in the venue, and since the bar had tall boys of PBR and Dan knew the bartender, beer/beer prices need not be worried about this night. All in all, it was looking like it was going to be an excellent night.
And sure enough, it was. Chuck Ragan opened the night, and I'll have to admit I was a little nervous for him.
(A side note about Chuck and Hot Water Music: I don't often say that someone is my hero or idol. Chuck Ragan is my hero/idol. Most people know Chuck from being one of the guitar player/vocalists from Hot Water Music. I was very fortunate to be introduced to Hot Water when I was. Without getting all sappy about it, Hot Water really helped me get through some hard times and their lyrics always work when I need a kick in the arse. When Chuck first released a solo record (the 1997 live release Los Feliz), I was completely blown away by it. He managed to take the open book/heart on his sleeve lyrics and raw energy he had in his days with Hot Water and translate it into a simpler acoustic/folk sound. To see someone who I respected so much in the punk world now making music in the Americana/alt. country/folk world that I also loved very much, was just so completely amazing. On top of everything, he is incredibly nice to his fans after shows and conveys an attitude of appreciating and being thankful for every single thing in his life. So yes, I think the world of Chuck Ragan.)
Anyway, back to the show. The reason I say I was nervous for Chuck is that you never know exactly how an audience at a "punk rock" show is going to react to an opening acoustic act. You especially never know how a crowd is going to act when you have fans as devoted as most Social D fans are. I've always thought that it's a little evil when bands are huge and have cult-like followings and have an opening act. Yeah, it's cool that those openers get some really good exposure, but usually it's just disastrous. I remember going to see Kiss when they started touring again with the makeup on and they had Alice in Chains open the show. Not one person in the building gave a crap that Alice in Chains played that night, and most people in the building probably liked Alice in Chains. They just had no interest in seeing them that night, they wanted to see Kiss and explosions and blood and Gene's tongue. Could you imagine if Springsteen toured with an opener? That poor band would have a complex by the end of the first night just from simply mistaking the "Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce" cheer after every song as a chorus of boos. It's not the band's fault that they don't know that any length of silence at a Bruce show gets filled with the "Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce" cheer. If the Social D faithful only wanted to hear Social D this night, their minds were quickly changed by Mr. Ragan. We walked into the venue right as Chuck started his set off with "It's What You Will." This has always been one of my favorite Chuck songs and to hear his rough booming voice fill the room brought a smile to my face. Chuck was accompanied onstage by Joe Ginsberg on upright bass and the amazing Jon Gaunt on fiddle. Chuck played a good representation of songs from all three of his albums. Some of the songs included "Rotterdam," "Glory," and "Geraldine" which he dedicated to his Mom. My only disappointment was Chuck did not play "Ole Diesel" which has been stuck in my head lately. A broken string led to Chuck switching guitars and a bit of a delay when realizing that the new guitar was out of tune. Jon Gaunt seized this moment and entertained the audience with an impromptu fiddle solo. This got the crowd stomping and clapping along as any good fiddle solo should do and once the guitar issues were remedied, the trio closed with a strong version of "The Boat." The crowd was very attentive through Ragan's set and the trio left the stage to a rousing round of cheers.
Lucero was up next and I had no doubt in my mind that the boys would deliver an outstanding set. Getting to see the boys from Memphis this early in 2011 is a promising start to beating my count of seeing them six times in 2010. This show would particularly be interesting in that I have never seen Lucero be part of the opening acts for a show. (I'm not counting the ill-fated LouFest appearance or the time they played as part of the SoCo Music Experience at Taste of St. Louis as those were festival all-day type events.) The great thing about a Lucero show is that the band comes out firing on all cylinders and doesn't let up until the last note has been played and the last beer has been thrown, sprayed or drunk. Even the slow songs are high energy as everyone is singing along and raising their beers. By the end of the night you feel completely drained, but in that really good way. This usually occurs over a 90 minute period, what would it be like when the boys essentially only have 45 minutes? After seeing this set, I'm convinced that if you only gave Lucero 15 minutes to go out and do their thing, the crowd would still end up soaked in beer and sweat and completely hoarse from singing along. From the opening song "That Much Further West," Lucero took control of the room and didn't let go of the crowd until the final notes of "Tears Don't Matter Much" rang in our ears. Lucero has pretty much been on the road non-stop since forever ago and the band has developed a definite swagger and personality onstage all its own. I would be willing to bet that there is no better live band touring right now and the crowd in Vegas took notice. I wasn't sure how the Social D faithful would take to Lucero's mix of country, punk, and rock. Mike Ness has always had country influences, but Social D definitely pulls from the Rockabilly side of things, where Lucero has a lot more twang in their sound. Judging by the response of the crowd, I'd say the crowd found Lucero's mix of musical influences just perfect.
Unfortunately, the horn section was missing from the Lucero lineup on this part of the tour. With the horns missing, that just guarantees that keyboardist/piano player Rick Steff and lap-steel player Todd Beene get to shine a little bit more on solos. Anyone that has seen the band live recently can attest to just how much Steff and Beene add to the band and the current live version of "All Sewn Up" has become a showcase for the two musicians to trade off some hot solos. As always Roy Berry (drums) and John C. Stubblefield (bass) lay down the rhythmic foundation. Roy is particularly fun to watch behind the drums and is in my opinion one of the best drummers out there. As always Brian Venable supplies some hot licks on the guitar while sporting some of the best sleeveless t-shirts since Brian Henneman. (Venable's shirts are usually hardcore metal bands where Henneman favored more MOPAR/car event type tees.) The ringleader for this group is the one and only Ben Nichols. Ben's voice sounds like he's had way too many cigarettes, drank way too much whiskey, and lived through all the rough times in his lyrics. And that's what makes his songs so good is that you realize he probably really has lived all of it. There is a huge amount of sincerity in all of his songs, an honesty that is found in all the really good writers out there. On top of writing great songs and singing and playing guitar, Ben is great at interacting with the crowd from the stage. Whether he's making fun of himself, his band mates, or telling funny stories, Nichols makes every Lucero show feel like an intimate show no matter the size of the event.
Speaking of the size of the event, holy crap was space becoming tight by the time Social Distortion took the stage! I know the event was sold out, but come on, getting to the bathroom should not have to be an epic adventure. I really had to laugh when people were actually surprised that they couldn't get any closer to the floor section just minutes before Mr. Ness and company took the stage. It's a sold out show for crying out loud! If you want to be up close when the headliner takes the stage, here's a hint: Show up early! Especially when the band has such a devoted fan base like Social D! At this point, I had many tall boys of PBR and I really wish I could remember what the D opened with. Hell, I wish I could remember the order of their setlist. I can't. I even tried to save the setlist in my iPhone, but everyone was packed so close together at this point, getting my phone out every song was becoming difficult. If it was a big hit, they played it. Stuff off the new record, check. Hardcore fan favorites, yup. Here's what I can tell you for sure. It doesn't matter who is in Social Distortion as long as Mike Ness is singing and playing guitar. Social Distortion still rocks harder than you wish you could. Mike Ness can still kick your ass. (I don't think Mike Ness would just go around and hand out random ass kickings, I just think he could.) Old punk rockers can still handle their own against the younger kids in the pit. (Trust me, seeing some of the old school punkers hold their own and then send some young kid flying across the dance floor was absolutely hilarious.) Realizing that you are singing along to "Sick Boy" at the top of your lungs and not feeling embarrassed about it because you look around to see that everyone else is doing the same is pretty awesome. One of the background singers that came out to help on the encore was pregnant. Do you think the kid will ever fully understand how cool it was that while in the womb, he/she was rocking out on stage with Social D?
I feel like I should give more attention to Social D's set, but I also think that if you didn't already know that Social D went out and played an amazing set, you don't know Social D. After all these years, Mr. Ness and company are still going strong. Would you expect anything less? (Plus the PBR seems to have created a decently dense fog in the memory portion of this part of the night.)
Thinking over the whole night, I realized that all three main vocalists would never be accused of having perfect singing voices. Chuck, Ben, and Mike all have very rough, "lived in" voices. But I think that is what is beautiful about the music created by all three. All three write songs that come from somewhere deep down, are part of them, and have an honesty in the lyrics that most can relate to. All three of them have spent their entire lives writing and playing music, and no matter how many times they all seem to get knocked down they just keep doing what they do. I find a lot of comfort in that.
Social D plays The Pageant Wednesday, May 4 with supporting acts Chuck Ragan and Sharks. Do yourself a favor and go.