That’s John Doe stage right, bass guitar slung low, salted black hair cutting an angular divide down his face. He hasn’t stopped moving since X took the stage to Link Wray’s “Rumble” — lurching towards the floor, leaning back like a green twig, attacking his bass with the same devil’s-on-my-tail anxiety of a guy half his age. Age ain’t nothing to X, one of the originators (and quite possibly last band standing) of American punk rock’s first wave. Now in their 60s, Doe and his bandmates waste no time in electrifying an eager crowd with a set that drew heavily from the group’s seminal first four albums. It’s a Tuesday night, it’s 40 years after that ground-zero moment, and this is gonna rock hard like it always has. Fuck yeah, indeed.
X’s original lineup — Doe, vocalist Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer DJ Bonebrake — performed to a capacity crowd Tuesday night (September 19) at Port City Music Hall in Portland as part of their 40th anniversary tour (it hit Brighton Music Hall in Allston last night). Though their roots are undeniably based in the Los Angeles punk scene of 1977 that spawned bands like The Germs and The Flesh Eaters, X — much like The Clash in the United Kingdom — quickly became something more than punk.
Drawing equally from rockabilly, country, and the nocturnal quintessence of L.A. rock ghosts à la The Doors (Ray Manzarek did produce those first four albums, after all), X are an American band that exist in the cracks and crevices, away from the surface just enough so as not to be pigeonholed. They stuff traditional American musical tropes — the Eddie Cochran-isms, the Buck Owens-ness, the American Graffiti echo that will always pump through L.A.’s veins — into the clothes of a modern, urban rock band. Listen to “Your Phone’s Off the Hook (But You’re Not)” from their 1980 debut album, Los Angeles, and the seeds of that band are already there.
The capacity crowd at Port City (give or take 600 people) echoed this motley composition: Old punks, once punks, the pixelated and pragmatic alike, businessman still in neckties, and younger fans commingling in sweaty, head-nodding ecstasy. The moments when the entire room was fully engaged in Pavlovian audience participation were the songs that exploited the twisted harmonizing yawp of Doe and Cervenka: “Beyond and Back,” “Los Angeles,” “Nausea,” “The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss.” Perhaps the thing that truly sets this band apart from all others, the gnarled sound of Doe’s pining baritone and Cervenka’s siren call is at once identifiable and hard to explain. Cervenka, the punk rock Stevie Nicks, often stood transfixed smack-dab in the middle of the stage, swaying but never pouncing.
Even more of a contrast to Doe’s energy than Cervenka was Zoom. Seated on a stool for most of the show, he played his blistering rockabilly leads with a blatant absence of “guitar face.” Like a guitar ventriloquist, Zoom was arguably the most technically impressive while seemingly establishing a disconnect between himself and his instrument. This is classic Zoom, of course. Lack of affect has long been part of his shtick, but his seated position — most likely a necessity following recent chemotherapy treatments for cancer — only served to make the yin-and-yang stage tension that much more palpable.
Bonebrake got his due on the Gene Krupa stomp of “The Hungry Wolf,” where he was cut loose with a polyrhythmic drum solo that transitioned into Zeppelin-esque call-and-response moaning between Doe and Cervenka. Touring member Craig Packham took the stage occasionally to allow Bonebrake to transition to the vibes, masterfully adding atmosphere to the stripped-down “Come Back to Me” and the galloping “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.” Zoom took the opportunity on both songs to play a saxophone mounted at the front of the stage while still hanging onto his guitar; on the latter song, the band stretched out into genuinely exciting improvisational territory that felt new yet not entirely unexpected.
The set came to a thrilling head towards the end, with old-school favorites like “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” “Soul Kitchen,” “White Girl,” and “The Once Over Twice” tumbling into one another. It is no surprise that this American band still delivers these songs of love, marriage, dissolution, hope, murder, and wide-open spaces with a genuineness of spirit — this is what they’ve always been and always will be, no matter the decade. On a Tuesday night as far away from L.A. as X could possibly get, they endured.
Featured photo by Zeth Lundy; follow him on Twitter @zethlundy.