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Social Distortion, The Whigs, Jonny Two Bags/Starland Ballroom, Sayreville, N.J./Sept. 4, 2014

Jonny Two Bags_by Neil Kanal.jpg
Since the early 2000s, Jonny “Two Bags” Wickersham has helped anchor the reconstituted lineup of legendary California punk band Social Distortion, grinding out guitar riffs, contributing backing vocals and, for the most part, leaving the splashy solos and showmanship to singer, guitarist and band co-founder Mike Ness. But Wickersham has recently stepped into the spotlight himself; he released a strong debut album, Salvation Town, in April, and he is performing opening sets on Social D’s current tour.

On the slate’s opening date, Jonny Two Bags (as he is billed on record and onstage) showcased the varied genres he touches on throughout Salvation Town (folk, Tex-Mex shuffle, a dash of honky-tonk) in a confidently delivered, half-hour set. The new disc very much has a fleshed-out, full-band feel, thanks to a bevy of guests — notables include Jackson Browne, Los Lobos members David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin, and longtime Elvis Costello sidemen Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher — but even though Two Bags’ performance here made for a much more stripped-down rendering, the songs retained much of their flavor.

That was due in large part to the versatility of multi-instrumentalist Mitchell Townsend, who was the lone other musician onstage for most of the set (the two were joined later by Social Distortion’s touring pianist/organist Dave Kalish, also the producer of Salvation Town). Two Bags, who even at 46 has a youthful voice that lends an air of vulnerability to his lyrics, and Townsend blended well on acoustic guitar during the opener, the excellent “One Foot in the Gutter.” Later, Townsend’s mandolin added color to “Clay Wheels,” a lament whose title phrase is a clever skateboarding metaphor Two Bags uses for life’s bumpy rides (he introduced it as being “about skateboarding” but then added that it just as well could be about growing up listening to punk and country music).

But the impressions made by Two Bags and Co. were not limited to the material from his new album; the B-side offering “How Many Hearts (Will You Destroy Today)” had a full-on power-pop feel, even without drums, while Two Bags, Kalish and Townsend (on pedal steel this time) turned “Salute the Dead” — a revved-up punk number as recorded by Two Bags’ old band, U.S. Bombs, long ago — into a compelling, twang-tinged folk song.

Some 90 minutes later, Jonny Two Bags would assume his normal place at stage left during Social Distortion’s headlining set, a decidedly louder affair, which was to be expected. What was not necessarily anticipated was a bit of an oddball set list from Ness’ outfit, which was making its first appearance in about a year and doesn’t have a new album to promote. As such, the band was free to, quite curiously, devote one-third of the 18-song show to mostly obscure cuts from the 1996 album White Light, White Heat, White Trash.

Still, those were primarily raucous selections that meshed fairly well with fast-tempo classics like “Another State of Mind” and “Cold Feelings,” plus an absolutely roof-rattling version of the much more recent “Machine Gun Blues.” It was shaping up as quite the high-energy performance before things began to peter out late in the main set with tepid, almost obligatory-sounding renditions of hits “Ball and Chain” and “Story of My Life.” Before it was over, Two Bags did manage to step out for one of his few brief solos, during a rousing take on Hank Williams’ “Six More Miles.” Much like Two Bags’ own set, his guitar work with Social D was fluid and polished, and as usual, anything but flashy.

The middle act on the bill, the Athens, Ga., band The Whigs, gave short shrift to its new album, Modern Creation, during its way-too-short slot of barely half an hour. The powerful trio did seem to make a large enough impression in its limited time. Highlights included two offerings from the new disc — the fuzzed-out riffage of “Friday Night” and the slinky title track, on which the extremely tight rhythm section of bassist Timothy Deaux and drummer Julian Doro showed plenty of heft yet proved to be quite limber, too. The Whigs appeared to win a few converts via singer-guitarist Parker Gispert’s extended jamming at the end of “Staying Alive” alone, as Gispert’s shredding and histrionics reached such an intense crescendo that his baseball cap fell off his head.

— By George Henn

Photo by Neil Kanal