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Live review: X, Social Distortion at GV30

The Southland punk bands help Goldenvoice celebrate its 30th anniversary in a vibrant, nostalgic show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Social-distortion2
Concertgoers entering the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on Friday night for a performance by Social Distortion and X had to weave through a maze of crowd-control barriers that led at least one ticketholder to ask, "Is there cheese at the end?"

When the Los Angeles concert-promotions firm Goldenvoice started staging punk shows three decades ago, such rat-race formalities might’ve carried a whiff of the Establishment. But as Goldenvoice marked its 30th year in business with a weekend-long festival called GV30, the proceedings reflected a newly grown-up mind-set.

In addition to Friday’s bill (which also featured the Adolescents), the celebration included shows Saturday and Sunday with Bad Religion, the Descendents and other veterans of Southern California’s vibrant punk scene.

That once-underground movement -- fired by a do-it-yourself attitude and a prideful anti-careerism -- was the original province of Goldenvoice founder Gary Tovar, who presented his first event under the company’s name in December 1981 at Santa Barbara’s La Casa de le Raza. (T.S.O.L. headlined, as we were reminded Friday by a grainy VHS clip projected onstage before X’s set; vintage fliers flashed by later advertising early gigs by Megadeth and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.)

Thirty years after those rude beginnings, Goldenvoice is now a division of the live-entertainment behemoth AEG Live and has become a major player in the rapidly evolving music industry. Its signature production, the annual Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, is among the concert trade’s biggest and most respected; last April, Coachella put Kanye West and Kings of Leon in front of an estimated 75,000 people at Indio’s Empire Polo Club.

So maybe a visual metaphor like the one outside the Civic Auditorium (where Tovar booked many of the formative Goldenvoice concerts) was more appropriate than it initially appeared. The music inside definitely bolstered the idea that professionalism needn’t kill inspiration.

Social Distortion was up-front with its ambition, playing before a large backdrop that trumpeted a "live stage show since ’79." (Fans had reason to believe the hype, because Friday’s performance marked the Orange County group’s second Southland concert in a week, after an appearance at KROQ-FM’s Almost Acoustic Christmas.) And indeed, here was a band as in touch with punk’s animating frenzy as it was with the road-toned muscle of classic rock.

Led by founding frontman Mike Ness -- and filled out with a lineup of (relatively) young guns, including powerhouse drummer David Hidalgo Jr. -- Social Distortion drew much of its tidy 60-minute set from the old days that GV30 was unabashedly commemorating. "I wrote this song in the Orange County jail," Ness admitted as he introduced one of the band’s earliest singles, "Justice for All." Other vintage selections included the title track from "Mommy’s Little Monster," Social Distortion’s debut album, and "Story of My Life," from its first major-label disc.

Before the latter (with its ringing "Bad Moon Rising" riff), Ness congratulated Goldenvoice on its endurance, acknowledging that "30 years ago, no major labels or promoters were knocking down my door." Tovar, he said, created a space for bands such as Social Distortion to flourish, and nothing about the group’s set bore out that claim more than the strength of its recent material.

"Machine Gun Blues" and "Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown," both from this year’s "Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes," were compact and arrow-like, while "Bad Luck" had the booming backbeat of a West Coast Bruce Springsteen. Social Distortion’s charge Friday may simply have been to indulge the nostalgia of several thousand homegrown hooligans. But Ness and his bandmates broadened that mandate.

X-bandX stuck more closely to GV30’s psychic sweet spot, pulling largely from the series of influential roots-punk albums it released throughout the first half of the 1980s. (Those are also the records X made with guitarist Billy Zoom, who rejoined the L.A. quartet in 1998 after a decade away.)

Yet thanks to a stripped-down attack that drummer D.J. Bonebrake drove with ruthless efficiency, X sounded no less vital than Social Distortion did; it offered a welcome reminder of an era when it wasn’t necessary to outsmart a good riff.

Like Ness, singer-bassist John Doe anchored tunes in geo-biographical detail. "Here’s a song from the Santa Monica Pier and the bumper cars that are still there," he said before "Blue Spark." Later, he introduced the title track from X’s debut, "Los Angeles," by acknowledging that the band considered Santa Monica part of its hometown. Frontwoman Exene Cervenka was quieter between songs but harmonized with Doe in the sweet-and-sour fashion that gives X’s music so much of its weird urgency.

At the end of the band’s set, Zoom remained onstage for a few minutes, snapping pictures of the crowd, and you could tell the sense of occasion wasn’t lost on the guitarist. In stark contrast with the shows depicted in that ancient VHS footage, nobody threw a single beer can at his head.

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-- Mikael Wood

Photos: Mike Ness of Los Angeles punk band Social Distortion (top) and John Doe of X (bottom) perform during the Goldenvoice 30th anniversary show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Credit: Anne Cusack/ Los Angeles Times

 
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