Putting the X in the Roxy: Concert Review

Jill Merrill Trakin
Rebellion turns into celebration with the passage of time, as the original foursome run through their debut, then another hour-long set for a sweaty throng.  

The L.A. punk icons celebrate their 34-year-old debut album with a red-hot set that proves they can still rock as hard as anyone.

Can you believe it’s been 34 years since the release of X’s groundbreaking debut album, Los Angeles? One look around the audience, with plenty of graying, bald domes and pot bellies, maybe not. Certainly the four original members of the band —ex-spouses John Doe and Exene Cervenka, the perpetually grinning Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake — despite their own weathered appearances, have survived quite well, given the energy they put into this first of four nights at the Roxy on fabled Sunset Strip.

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Each night is devoted to a single run-through of the band’s first four seminal albums, released one a year from 1980-’83, the first two on Slash, the latter two on Elektra — Thursday evening was their debut, Los Angeles, followed by Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World.  Still, not to worry, the group follows up those renditions with at least another hour of classics from the other three albums, their sheer joy marking the distance from early rebellion to present-day celebration of their collective survival.

And while John and Exene are no longer a couple, that doesn’t stop them from beaming at their patented wobbly harmonies, Doe’s thunderous bass and DJ’s tribal beat as aggressive now as it ever was, as original guitarist Billy Zoom — with that inscrutable death mask half-smile looking like a combination of Christopher Walken and Big Love’s malignant Matt Ross (so good also as the corrupt tech mogul in Silicon Valley) — providing the subtle rockabilly underpinning to the maelstrom.  What once sounded like white noise is now revealed to be what it is —— American roots music, merely revved-up to 120 miles per hour.

Both John and Cervenka are up to the task, the evening gaining extra poignancy from the fact they played the same album in the same venue just two-and-a-half years ago with its producer, the late Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, the crowd surging to the stage through the opener, “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” and “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” before screaming along to the refrain of The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen”: “Learn to forget…”  Local keyboardist Jon Brion filled in neatly, bashing his instrument for the dark “Nausea” and its haunting refrain, “Bloody red eyes…” Doe and Zoom roar through “Sugarlight,” before John pauses a moment to note, “That’s side one,” a somewhat ironic distinction in this era of on-demand streaming. 

“She had to leave… Los Angeles,” the crowd shouts along to the album’s classic title track, a song even this New Yorker – some five years from switching coasts himself, recognized as a true rallying cry of desperation in the midst of a parochial New York scene that didn’t recognize the same musical revolution was taking place 3,000 miles away… but I did, and still do.

Doe has a mischievous grin on his face for “Sex and Dying in High Society” as Jon Brion pounds the keys, while John introduces “The Unheard Music” as a song composed on the nearby corner of San Vicente and Sunset, lighting a fire in a dumpster from old albums in back of Peaches Records while waiting to get into the Whisky, hoping one day to hear the music they were making “on the car radio.”

Brion provides a feverish roller-rink organ sound to the climactic “The World’s a Mess It’s in My Kiss,” the apocalyptic anthem that juxtaposes the macro end of civilization with the micro touching of lips.

Returning after a brief break, the band show off their post-punk country predilections with a cover of Lead Belly’s “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes,” which Doe notes, “There’s a first,” before promising, “Don’t worry, it will get loud again.” Guest guitarist, Alabama-born Michael Kilpatrick joins the band, strumming wildly through “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” X’s tribute to transforming the airwaves, name-checking the likes of then-contemporaries The Minutemen, Flesh Eaters, DOA, Black Flag and ending with Woody Guthrie… “Will the last American band to get played on the radio/Please bring the flag.”

DJ gets his jungle drum solo on “The Hungry Wolf,” and John and Exene roar through Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Breathless,” living up to the song’s name, before a triple play of Wild Gift’s “In This House That I Call Home,” “The Once Over Twice” and “White Girl.”  The second set ends with the one-two punch of Under the Big Black Sun’s “Motel Room in My Bed” and More Fun in the New World’s “Devil Doll” and its great lyric, “She never wears a dress on Sunday or any Monday afternoon.”

The crowd still hasn’t had enough, coaxing them back for a four-song encore that starts with the anthem, “The New World” and its admonition, “Don’t forget the Motor City,” followed by a rip-roaring “Blue Spark,” a crackling “Beyond & Back” (“Now it’s five to twelve, shut up and smoke”). By the time they get to the closing, “Because I Do,” it’s the perfect closer, a reiteration of commitment, but a vow to never settle, either.

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“I am the married kind/The kind that said I do/Forever searching for someone new,” sings John and Exene in typically off-key counterpoint, with three decades-plus under their belts, that restless spirit remains more than intact.

Set list:

Los Angeles  album
Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not
Johnny Hit and Run Paulene
Soul Kitchen (The Doors cover)
Los Angeles
Sex and Dying in High Society
The Unheard Music
The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss

Dancing with Tears in My Eyes (Lead Belly cover) 
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
The Hungry Wolf
Year One
Breathless (Jerry Lee Lewis cover)
In This House That I Call Home
The Once Over Twice
White Girl
How I (Learned My Lesson)
I’m Coming Over
It’s Who You Know
Motel Room in My Bed
Devil Doll

The New World
Blue Spark
Beyond & Back
Because I Do