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Mike Ness expands on punk-rock sound

By Mike Weatherford

Social Distortion leader Mike Ness is touring in support of his new solo album, "Cheating at Solitaire."

For all the rebellion it espouses, Mike Ness realizes punk rock is perhaps the most restrictive kind of music out there.

"You're a sellout because you learned how to play your guitar and learned how to sing better," says the voice and songwriter behind Social Distortion. "I fought real hard to defy those stereotypes."

While the battle isn't over, the leader of one of punk's longest-lasting bands took the easier and less-confusing path when it came time to expand his musical agenda.

Instead of pushing Social Distortion beyond its signature sound, Ness released a solo album, "Cheating at Solitaire." He will play it with a new band on Saturday at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South. Devil Dolls open at 8 p.m. General admission is $19.50.

The album is something he's been "patiently waiting" to do for six years. "I enjoy all kinds of music," Ness says. "Only being able to play one type was restrictive."

While the solo album contains honking saxophones and a "punkabilly" version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," longtime Social Distortion fans shouldn't be surprised.

Those who dig deeper than Social Distortion's 1983's breakthrough anthem "Mommy's Little Monster" can hear Ness' fondness for country, roots and rockabilly even in radio-friendly songs such as "Bad Luck" and "Story of My Life."

There's a particularly strong nod to Johnny Cash in Ness' downtrodden songwriting. He credits the influence to his father, who played country and bluegrass guitar while the 36-year-old was growing up in Orange County, Calif.

"I had long hair when I was a young teen, and smoked weed and listened to Led Zeppelin," he recalls. "But I was also the one who looked in the back of Cream magazine at the ads for Iggy Pop and Lou Reed."

By the time he was in high school, he was "not buying into '70s limousine rock. ... Most kids called me a freak because I liked David Bowie and they liked Elton John."

When he first heard the Sex Pistols at age 17, "It sounded like how I felt inside" and his punk-rock future was cast.

But now, "country, depression blues and folk are just as significant and inspiring as punk was," he says. "I want to be known as an American songwriter and not just a guy from some punk band from Orange County."

While the live shows don't include the album's big-name guest stars -- Bruce Springsteen, Brian Setzer -- "the response has just been amazing," he says.

The album has "not only helped me develop as a songwriter, but as a performer," he says. "I get to actually sing and not just scream."

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