Bad Religion & Social Distortion disrupt Vegas

Under beautiful desert skies, illuminated by neon lights and enormous LED screens, the promise of pleasure and joy are bet on 24-hours per day and, for a lucky few, those bets pay off. For those fans who bet on tickets to the sold-out Bad Religion and Social Distortion show at the Virgin Hotel and Casino Las Vegas on 4/13, they hit the jackpot. Two of the most iconic SoCal punk rock bands took the stage and put on an absolute banger of a show that none in attendance will soon forget.

From the moments the doors opened into the formerly known as the “Joint” theater, the eclectic crowd, both young and old, was buzzing. The excitement of seeing these two bands playing together was truly palpable. Even more exciting was the fact that Social D front man, Mike Ness, had recovered from his battle with cancer and ready to rock once more! 

On this night, Bad Religion would open this dual headlining show.

Their instantly identifiable logo hung as their only backdrop, illuminated by a pair of spotlights. As the lights dropped and the crowd roared in anticipation of the performances to come, the members of Bad Religion took the stage. Baker and Bentley took the stage first: Bentley adorned in a wide-brimmed cowboy hat flanked by Baker, who strapped on their guitars and stood fast, backs to the crowd, in front of their amps, causing growing and sustained feedback to fill the air. Moments later, frontman Greg Graffin walked out on stage, the true character he is, with a drink cup in hand, gesturing the drink as an offering to the crowd.  

As the guitar and bass feedback buzzed, the drums hit and the band opened their set with the fan favorite “Infected”. This song was such a perfect way to start the set and the crowd immediately responded with pure joy. Within seconds, the pit opened up and the circle commenced. Bad Religion then launched immediately into “No Control” from the 1989 album of the same name. Following this began the witty banter from Graffin; he exuberantly addressed the fervor-filled crowd and announced the next song was one they had not played in many years. To the excitement of true fans, they launched into “Drunk Sincerity”: such a great tune and truly awesome to see it live for the first time in a very long time.

For me, as a photojournalist, I get to live the dream: loads of concerts, meeting bands, taking killer shots of performances, and conducting interviews, and then the reality of only getting to shoot the first three songs and then having to leave the pit kicks in. While this is normal and an accepted part of the job, one this that was different this night was how packed the venue was. It was so crowded that the aisles were completely blocked and the crowd absolutely refused to move. A kind security guard in the venue saw me clutching my camera gear while trying to squeeze out and pulled me back. He said, “Bro, there is no way you are going through there. Go out this exit door and circle back!” Ok, cool. Out the stage side door I went, into a stairwell by myself, the steel fire door slamming behind me. As I got to the next floor and popped through the door, I came face-to-face with none other than Social D frontman and OC punk legend (who was just given the key to the city of Fullerton) Mike Ness! It’s moments like these I wish I was not a professional. It was everything I had not to totally fan boy on this king of OC punk rock, especially after his life-threatening battle with cancer. It was cool enough to make eye contact with him, get a head nod from him, and have him throw up some horns. I was able to make my way back through the venue and was treated by security in the very packed house to a seat at the sound board! What a great place to watch the show!

As the Bad Religion set continued, Graffin threw out a few quips related to the song titles (think dad jokes) and then launched into fan-favorites such as “Fuck You”, “Epiphany”, and “Suffer”. Each section of the show was broken down into three songs, with Graffin entertaining the crowd with one story or another. It was an awesome mix of both hits and deeper cuts. The final selections included the massive fan-favorite “Sorrow”, prompting the crowd to respond in a deafening roar. This song holds a special place in my heart, as it was my son’s (and my writing partner here at Top Shelf) first favorite punk song when he was very young. He used to ask for it from his car seat on the way home each day from preschool. It was even more special this night experiencing this song, at this show, on his 20th birthday. The set wrapped up with “Only Gonna Die” and the crowd favorite sing-along “Fuck Armageddon”.

No encore for this show.

Bad Religion put on one hell of great set (as usual), filled with energy, crowd interaction, amazing songs, and plenty of Greg Graffin pointing at things (IYKYK)! Honestly, I have seen Bad Religion more times than I can recall, but this show was one of the best I have seen from them in a long time. It was the perfect start to a great night of music and a set that left an indelible mark on all those in attendance.

As the house lights came on, there was a definite buzz in the venue. The trademark Social Distortion skeleton adorned the backdrop onstage. When the lights dropped, the crowd went nuts. As the members of Social D began taking the stage, there was one person we all waited for with baited expectations. Mike Ness walked out onstage in his classic vintage style, took the middle of the stage, grinned widely, tapped his fist to his heart, and then giggled before throwing out a peace sign to the adoring crowd. The cheers were so loud it was truly moving. For those not in the know, Ness was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and had gone through treatment that threatened not only his future as a musician, but also his life. The members of the band took their places onstage with a swagger that can only come from decades of honing their craft. Ness strapped on his vintage gold Les Paul and launched into the classic “Bad Luck”, so apropos, to the delight of the crowd. From there, it was a relentless onslaught of anthemic classics and heartfelt tunes, each song delivered with a sincerity that resonated well with the crowd.

Tracks like “Bye Bye Baby”, “I Wasn’t Born to Follow”, and “Tonight” served as reminders of the band’s storied career, while newer additions to their repertoire showcased their enduring relevance and musical evolution — not to mention their musical talent. Ness’s gravelly vocals were as strong as ever and were purely Mike Ness, the heart of the Social Distortion sound. About a quarter of the way through the set, Ness slow-rolled into “Mommy’s Little Monster” and the place went absolutely bonkers! It was as good as it always is and a great reminder of how a song from the early 80s still holds up as a punk anthem all these years later! 

The second half of the show was just an avalanche of hits that set the joint on fire.

Songs such as “1945”, “Reach for the Sky”, and “Ball and Chain” had the place rocking and the crowd singing along and in a frenzy. Interestingly, “Ball and Chain” was played at a bit slower BPM; it took a minute to get used to, but it still rocked as good as always. The pit was… well… interesting. There is a joke out there about old punks not getting old, but just stand in the back, but there were plenty in the pit. The only problem was them trying to keep up with the younger punks who were going off. It’s always interesting to see older punks barking at young punks for being too punk! It’s a good reminder that if you cannot handle being in the pit, don’t be.

Ness took several minutes to talk about his cancer diagnosis and treatment, and how brutal it was. He openly shared there were times when he was not sure he had the strength or willpower to keep fighting, but it was the fans who leant him tremendous support and kept him going. He gave a truly heart felt speech before introducing a new song from their upcoming album. The song “Warn Me” was both profound in its message and beautiful in its tone.; it is a testament to Ness as a storyteller and survivor!

Social D closed out the night with the classic “Ring of Fire”. About halfway through the song, Ness slowed things down and appeared to just take it all in. It seemed to be a moment of recognition and thanks. Ness then took a few minutes to bring up four kids from the crowd. They ranged in age from 8-13 years. He asked them each about their dreams when they grew up. Much to Ness’s delight, a pair of the kids said they were going into trades and he told them they could come work on his vintage car! The youngest kid said he was going to be a professional golfer. This brought a chuckle from Ness who said, “Oh, like Alice Cooper?”, which brought a look of confusion from the 8-year-old. This brought a lot of laughs from the band and the crowd. After asking the crowd for a round of applause for the future generation, the kids moved offstage and the band wrapped up a 12-minute-long rendition of the classic Cash hit. Social Distortion’s set was a testament to the enduring power of punk rock to unite and inspire, transcending barriers of age, race, and background. 

In an age of uncertainty, the punk rock music this night from Bad Religion and Social D provided a beacon of hope and solidarity, reminding us that even in the darkest of times, there is power in unity and resistance. Or, in Vegas terms, when the chips are down, sometimes going all in leads you to the jackpot. For those in attendance at this powerhouse dual headliner, we all walked away winners. If this tour is stopping in your town or nearby, make sure you get tickets.

Photography by Shane Pase

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