Words by: David Higdon | Images by: Paul Puckett
X :: 05.29.08 :: Variety Playhouse :: Atlanta, GA
X. For legions of fans, this one letter has singularly spelled rock 'n' roll for 31 years. A single letter representing an unknown quantity has provided a musical reference point for countless aspiring bands. And, if the near-capacity crowd at the Variety Playhouse proved just one thing, it's that punk's not dead. It can still be found in one of the most critically lauded and highly respected bands of all time. The inimitable energy, the fierce craftsmanship - there is only one X.
|Billy Zoom & Exene Cervenka - X :: 05.29 :: Atlanta|
Atlanta was just one stop along the 39 date "13x31" tour that has brought the original lineup of John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake out on the road to churn out a musical history of cool. While not punk by mass definitions of the word, X's use of harmonizing vocals, folk song structures and talented musicianship contains substantially more depth and style than any of their musical counterparts, who are often considered punk. While keeping the crucial elements of abandon, loss and yearning that have defined punk, the songwriting of ex-spouses Doe and Cervenka has created tunes whose profundity embody a spirit and not a genre. Punk's an attitude, not just a fast-tempo song. Johnny Cash was punk. Lenny Bruce was punk. Sure, punk's found in the nose thumbing social buffoonery of the Sex Pistols or the political mistrust of The Clash, but its core is born from the frustration that exists in trying to express oneself before a quick-to-judge society or the closest loved ones in your life.
Getting the night started, The Detroit Cobras assertively delivered a diverse set of soulful deep cuts of reprehensibly unnoticed covers. Lead singer Rachel Nagy's pack-a-day vocal charm guided the audience through such sexually charged R&B b-sides as James Brown's "If You Don't Think," Spooner Oldham's "Slippin' Around" and the Otis Redding chestnut, "Shout Bamalama." A Detroit band taking on two of Georgia's favorite sons before a crowd that's thirsty for their musical heroes could be a risky move but their garage magnetism lured the audience closer to the stage. So much more than a cover band, The Detroit Cobras breathes new life into overlooked soul.
The lights dimmed on the vacant stage and four shadowy figures began to take their familiar places amongst the glowing amplifier lights. Cheers and salutations were soon drowned out as a musical force pushed its way through the aisles in the form of "The Phone's Off the Hook, But You're Not;" the first song on X's '79 debut, Los Angeles. The sound brought Bonebrake's intricate drum fills, Zoom's complex guitar work, and Doe and Cervenka's combined vocals together for musical firepower. Over the course of the night, the band would revisit several songs from this landmark album that was ranked #286 in the "Top 500 Albums of All Time" and #24 in the "Top 100 Albums of the 80s" by Rolling Stone.
|John Doe - X :: 05.29 :: Atlanta|
Barely stopping to take a breath, they launched into "We're Having Much More Fun," and everyone in attendance could certainly agree. When the opening Chuck Berry-flavored riffs from Zoom's Gretsch Silver Jet introduced "Beyond and Back," the energized audience took just enough time out from dancing to properly insert the rant, "Now it's five to twelve, shut up and smoke," without seeing the band slow down to milk any sort of crowd participation or sing along. These guys were going to play the songs as they are supposed to be played not like some retro reunion tour playing crowd favorites. X wouldn't fall into this category anyway since they've never really gone away. Rather, their lack of commercial prominence has entwined their legacy into somewhat of a folk hero status to many current rockers such as Ryan Adams, the Old 97's and Southern troubadour Patterson Hood (who was visibly enjoying himself amongst the sweat soaked crowd).
Doe humorously introduced "My Goodness" as "the only slow song that we're going to play all night," before Exene delivered the cautiously seductive line "my goodness just left to make room for you." The number was also the only track played off of the band's fifth album, Ain't Love Grand, with the majority of the show primarily focused on the first four releases in the X arsenal.
Whether your hook is the guitar prowess of Billy Zoom's playful drive in "True Love," Bonebrake's tribal pounding in "Hungry Wolf" or Doe's temple pulsing bass in "Nausea," the band is a tight group of musicians to watch. Add a lyrically astute, poetic writing style to the mix and you get songs like "Some Other Time" off of '81's Wild Gift (#334 on Rolling Stones "Top 500 Albums of All Time") that have not lost their impact. That same theory extends to the politically relevant "The New World," which Pearl Jam incorporated into their 2004 Vote for Change setlist.
|Exene Cervenka & D.J. Bonebrake - X :: 05.29 :: Atlanta|
Whether it's through their riffs, their writing style or the carefully chosen covers, X pays homage to the musicians that have inspired them. When they sink their teeth into the wild abandon of the Otis Blackwell-penned "Breathless," made famous by the Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, the driving beat is so spot on that you don't miss the piano at all. The same holds true of The Doors' classic "Soul Kitchen." X played the spiced up number to close out their set, and they've made it their own. It should also be noted that The Doors' keyboardist/arranger Ray Manzarek not only produced X's first four albums (Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World), but he also contributed as a musician. Teaming up with one of the faces of the hippie generation may not seem very punk, but it's the kind of pairing that makes X one of a kind.
Since the band still calls Los Angeles home, fans in Georgia have had to wait patiently for another cross country jaunt in order to hear X favorites played live. For the second encore, Doe emerged drenched from the night's musical exertions, armed with an acoustic guitar and joined by Cervenka to accompany him on The Knitters (X's country alter ego) style version of the title track from '87's See How We Are. The stripped down approach showcased the duo's harmonies and songwriting sensitivity with the simple change of instrumentation. The rest of the band was not ready to say goodbye, either. After a lean version of the "Once Over Twice," X ended the night with the savage "Devil Doll." When the house lights came up and the sweat was wiped from the brow, there was a unanimous decision: X is punk.
X :: 05.29.08 :: Variety Playhouse :: Atlanta, GA
The Phone's Off the Hook but You're Not, We're Having Much More Fun, Beyond and Back, My Goodness, White Girl, In this House that I Call Home, We're Desperate, True Love, Back to the Base, Los Angeles, Hungry Wolf, Year One, The New World, The Unheard Music, Some Other Time, Sugarlight, Breathless, Nausea, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, Motel Room in My Bed, Soul Kitchen
Encore: Because I Do, It's Who You Know, The World's A Mess It's in My Kiss
Encore II: See How We Are, Once Over Twice, Devil Doll
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