This was not Irving Plaza!
Fillmore East at Irving Plaza
Saturday, May 24
Having been a very young Negress in the 1970s—and a child lacking hip older siblings to initiate sonic outreach to genres beyond the Black Bottom’s techno-bush—punk is my blind spot in the universal of sound of the world. So one could have colored me surprised to spy at least two other sistahs below around the edges of X’s sold out crowd at the Fillmore last Saturday night. Of course Afro-Punk has opened up horizons and lessened the race traitor guilt of many youngblood rockers and rockettes. However, I am of an age where until recently I knew of X co-leader John Doe primarily as an edgy thespian, gracing films high (Allison Anders’ Sugar Town) and low (trash-cult Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House). Still, 1980—the year of X’s Ray Manzarek-produced debut Los Angeles—may have been saturated by metal’s primetime rise in the West; but for me, a child in Mali, the dawn of the Ray Gun Era was all about Sahelian griot music, soukous and the swan song of the golden era of black music that had been the ‘70s (think Earth Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove”). Mercifully, my best friend moved to Manhattan at the height of New York punk’s cultural impact and can backfill my musical education, while a good friend who’s a native Angelena (East Siiide!) strenuously persuaded me to share her love of Doe’s great solo works.
Punk had long been to me about the leaching of the Présence Africaine from classic rock. And when I nearly gave rockabilly dudes at the Fillmore’s rear downstairs bar an apoplexy while passing by, some thoughts along those lines seemed to be confirmed. After a few years pursuing the John Doe show trail around the land, though, I had finally been able to connect with the synergy between his individual music, the most overt twang-centrism of the Knitters’ project and ultimately ken the glory that is X. We had basically missed openers the Detroit Cobras, but when the headliners finally took the stage after we’d attempted to throw dem ‘bows to a run of Devo—“Gut Feeling” really got the gang going—it was pure pleasure to witness a band never pausing to rest on its laurels. The quartet of Doe on bass, his ex-wife and fellow singer/lyricist Exene Cervenka on vocals, Billy Zoom on guitar and DJ Bonebrake on drums may have played only one new song (occasioning some to comment this gig was no different than what they’d caught back in ’80) but the flow was kept tethered to short, sharp eruptions of raw power for the worshipful multi-generational audience that began wildly moshing down front before the stage almost from the git-go.
Songs from the quartet’s early ‘80s LPs—including “White Girl,” “The Hungry Wolf,” “My Goodness, “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” and “Devil Doll”—were both hallowed chestnuts that spurred fervent sing-alongs from the normally too jaded and cool NYC crowd and wonderfully fresh, almost as if X were not on its 31st anniversary tour. Their reknowned cover of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” stood out as a highlight with its apparent stylistic nod to local heroes of yore the Ramones—fitting since the previous notable event on the Fillmore’s calendar was a Joey Ramone Birthday Bash. In spite of 1983’s Ain’t Love Grand still receiving occasional sellout vilification that’s a hallmark of the band’s particular rock orbit nor having dropped any new material since 1993’s Hey Zeus, X held their fans sway to their inexorable power. Pogo-ing (and a few fist-fighting), sweat-strewn and in alt, guest-list musicians and millennial bloggers alike strove to reach out and touch the stoic Zoom and Cervenka, whose sideways skanking in her apostate rock & roll nun’s habit and witch tights definitely seemed the matrix for third-gen LA rocker W. Axl Rose’s celebrated slither. Although she seemed to be having trouble hearing herself, Cervenka certainly came into her own on when stepping out on “Nausea” and while duetting with Doe on a rabble-rousing version of “The New World.” The latter introduced the song citing its heightened meaning when they play it during an election year and simply urged the audience to vote, without fuss or fanfare.
Doe was charming as ever and taking his all up past 11. Best of all, his and Bonebrake’s rhythm science was solid enough that this Flying African never had to excavate the beat. Everything seemed to delight Doe, from inter-song conferences with Cervenka to the hilarious moment when Zoom suddenly slapped him on the ass. Zoom himself, in head-to-toe black, seemed the living manifestation of the encyclopedic definition of cool. Easily cradling his ax, he threatened at one point to do a split down to the ground. Yet Zoom remained a likely heir to his midcentury forebear Miles Davis—even with a white guitar pick stuck to his forehead between the first and second encores. From “Riding With Mary” (the blues for Cervenka’s late sister Mirielle claimed by the road) through fitting song o’ the times “We’re Desperate,” I was enchanted and educated by X, satisfied with their new millennial energy, never eclipsing the atmosphere in the room of something akin to a bona fide revival.