Seeing seminal punk luminaries X in concert, you don’t want — nor do you expect — to have a nicely dressed wine sommelier with an earpiece headset showily displaying a bottle of wine to a table in front of you. You don’t expect — nor should you have — said tables. X is a punk band that deserves and demands a loud, on-their-feet, sweaty crowd pressed up in front of the stage, swilling beer, bodies slamming together. Sure, there was green hair, tattoos, and old-school punks in the crowd — and three diligent fans on their feet trying to incite the tables of fans eating braised-duck tacos and drinking pinot noir to something resembling old-school punk enthusiasm.
Still, L.A.’s beloved stalwarts belted out frenetic roots-punk, and while the band was powerful and raw and the venue is great, never the twain should have met. That said, they did — for a three-night stand, no less — and the results from the stage were nonetheless nothing short of inspirational.
Lux and Ivy. Kim and Thurston. Stevie and Lindsey. John and Exene. Of music’s idolized pairings, few (if any) remain together romantically. And fewer still make such intense music together as X’s John Doe and Exene Cervenka, the creative coupling catalysts who propelled X starting in 1977 (they divorced in 1985) and whose music and onstage chemistry stand the test of time.
Kicking off their set with the classic chords of “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not,” the first song off their self-titled debut, X killed the night with expected classics including “Beyond and Back,” “Devil Doll,” and their frantically paced trademark and hometown paean, “Los Angeles.”
A pair of classic covers almost always show up in the X live setlist: the Otis Blackwell–composed Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Breathless” and the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” a nod to the lineup’s Fifties countrified rave-up influences and L.A. roots, respectively (Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek was a mentor and friend to the band, producing their first four albums).
With original drummer D.J. Bonebrake and his rock-solid, propulsive, often tribal rhythms, but sadly minus guitarist Billy Zoom, who is taking time off for cancer treatment, X performed with a sweaty passion, verve, and authenticity that belied their 35 years of bandom and the venue’s inherent staidness. (Austin-based guitarist Jesse Dayton filled in with a twangy punk flair and fit in seamlessly.)
Songs like “New World” are musically triumphant, soaring, almost reminiscent of David Byrne in their creativity, while the stripped and staccato “Blue Spark” and the sneering attitude and portentous groove of “White Girl” also shone. “Nausea,” another longtime fave, was superb, its mid-tempo tribal feel inciting the crowd, while the frantic true-life tragedy of “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” (about Exene’s older sister, who was killed in a car crash on the way to an X gig) remained endlessly intense.
Cervenka and Doe — both accomplished solo artists — still have the shared vocal chemistry (at 59 and 61, respectively), a back-and-forth that intertwines and insinuates, a call-and-response that’s unique and perfectly imperfect. They’re the Bonnie and Clyde of the stage, the Mickey and Mallory of music: two total badasses separately, but even more explosive, dangerous, and captivating when together.