Live Review: Bad Religion @ Hordern Pavilion

20 February 2023 | 11:07 am | Mark Hebblewhite

"Bad Religion may have been playing last but judging by the number of Social Distortion shirts in the audience, this was a genuine double-headliner situation."

Pic by Hayden Nixon

Pic by Hayden Nixon

More Bad Religion More Bad Religion

I’m not going to lie, Anty were an odd (brave works as well) choice as a local support to put in front of a couple of thousand aging so-cal punk rock fans. Part dub-step, part hip-hop with a huge dose of reggae and pop to boot, no one can ever accuse the project’s mastermind Anty Horgan (The Bennies), of playing it safe. Somehow, it worked, with bemused faces quickly giving way to nodding heads as Anty delivered a quickfire set brimming with energy and a Madness cover to grease the wheels of acceptance. Leaving the stage to a decent amount of cheers, one got to feel that all involved were a little surprised.

Bad Religion may have been playing last but judging by the number of Social Distortion shirts in the audience, this was a genuine double-headliner situation. Bad Religion come to our shores with clockwork regularity; Social Distortion, on the hand, are much rarer visitors hence a rippling anticipation that physically moved the crowd as Mike Ness and the boys wandered on stage to the strains of Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy. For a bloke that should have died numerous times over, given the life he’s led, Ness sounded incredible, and the band as a whole delivered a massive wall of sound. 

Pic by Hayden Nixon

The setlist was well chosen and reflected the band’s journey from hardcore warriors through their adaption of blues and country influences right through to the melodic hardcore sheen of later records. 1945 and Mommy’s Little Monster represented the band’s anarchic early years, while the likes of Ball and Chain, Bad Luck, So Far Away, Sick Boys (Ness trying to master the Aussie ‘sick’ was a comedic high point), and the anthemic Story Of My Life held down the apogee of the band’s career. Thankfully, Social Distortion weren’t just willing to rehash the past and blasted through two energetic new songs, Over You and Tonight, which bode well for their long-awaited eighth studio offering due later this year. As good as all these tunes were, nothing beat the one-two punch of Reach For The Sky, and I Wasn’t Born To Follow from the band’s superlative 2004 LP Sex, Love and Rock N Roll, with the former track made extra special by the addition of some sweet keyboards. Add covers of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game and the ever-impressive Ring Of Fire, and you have a set that any Social Distortion fan would be hard-pressed to complain about. This was the first time that Social Distortion had played with Bad Religion in 40 years. Many bands would just accept that in this situation, they would be playing second fiddle to the masters, but Social Distortion delivered a set that befitted their status as punk rock icons.

Pic by Hayden Nixon

I first saw Bad Religion in 1995 at Selinas (The Grey Race tour, if I’m not mistaken). It’s been a long time since, and the band are now pushing eligibility for a range of senior benefits, but they truly haven’t lost a step. There’s a joie de vivre about Bad Religion’s music that is really hard to explain; these songs just make life better. Over the course of 50 minutes or so, everyone’s favourite gang of maths teachers churned out two-minute banger after two-minute banger after – well, you get the idea. Starting with a ‘deep cut’ in the form of Too Much To As, the band proceeded to bring out the big guns, including No Control and Turn Out The Lights, before giving a welcome nod to forgotten gems such as The Streets of America and Man On A Mission. The sheer quality of this setlist reminded everyone in attendance just how prolific and consistent Bad Religion have been. Even the later and supposedly ‘lesser’ albums contain gem after gem, and we got them in the form of Fuck You and End of History. The band’s purple patch from the early 90s was also well represented with Social Suicide, Epiphany, Germs Of Perfection and the indefatigable sing-along crowd-pleaser Sorrow

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Pic By Hayden Nixon

Song choices aside, the band sounded great. Graffin didn’t miss a note (and kept the in-between song banter to a minimum), with Baker and Bentley enthusiastically belting out the patented 'oohs' and 'aahs'. By the time the band got around to playing American Jesus and Fuck Armageddon, they’d already conquered the crowd (with a somewhat ironically ferocious rendition of I Don’t Want to Conquer The World), who probably would have stuck around for another couple of hours to bask in the band’s massive back catalogue. Sure, Bad Religion are frequent visitors to our neck of the woods, but every time they come, it feels extremely special, and this gig was no different.

Getting to see Bad Religion and Social Distortion in one place at the same time was something special, and as Mike Ness reminded us – many around the world would have given anything to be present. The bands may be aging, and their audience definitely is, but both remained vital, powerful and utterly unique.