X, The Doors' Ray Manzarek Bring Blistering 'Los Angeles' to Sunset Strip Music Fest: Concert Review

Who's L.A.'s best legacy band? The Doors' keyboardist made the rankings even harder to figure by joining punk stalwarts X for a fiery and flawless recreation of their 1980 debut album.

Exene Cervenka signaled to the crowd at Friday night’s X show at the Roxy that she might be just a few degrees shy of passing out from the packed venue’s heat. “I’m delirious,” she declared, adding: “Which is great. Delirium is a really good drug, because it’s free.”

Even if they couldn’t stand the sweat-drenched heat, no one on hand wanted to get out of the soul kitchen … to reference a song that got played twice during the hour-and-a-half show. That wasn’t just a random choice for a set-ending reprise: “Soul Kitchen” was the Doors song the band covered on their Ray Manzarek-produced debut, and with the keyboard man himself rejoining them for his first L.A. concert with X in over three decades, there was joy as well as roasting in repetition.

The Roxy show, the first half of which consisted of the band playing 1980’s Los Angeles album in its entirety, was the middle event of this year’s Sunset Strip Music Festival, which began Thursday and ends Saturday with Doors-themed tributes. Manzarek’s presence on keys through more than a third of X’s show made it an unofficial part of the fest’s weekend-long homage, but he made it seem like his loyalties lay more with the group at hand, as he deemed them “my favorite Los Angeles band,” a lofty accolade indeed if he meant to include the one he was in with Jim Morrison among the competition.

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Plenty of fans have assumed that X including a Doors song on their debut album had something to do with their producer’s presence, but as Manzarek made anecdotally clear during a set-ending tribute speech, that cover predated his arrival. “I saw them at the Whisky-a-Go-Go” in the late ‘70s, he recalled in a set-ending speech, and when his companion leaned over to ask if he recognized the song they were playing, his initial answer was no. Then “I went, ‘Holy shit, it’s “Soul Kitchen” at 1,000 miles an hour!’”

Thirty-some odd years later, the pace at Friday’s show rarely slowed below 900 mph, with “The New World” and “The Unheard Music” being the closest things to mid-tempo tunes in an otherwise furious 27-song set. This is the X that’s been on and off a perpetual reunion tour for the last decade and a half, with guitar hero Billy Zoom back in the band, and not only no new material included, but nothing that even post-dates Zoom’s original 1983 exit. Strictly devoting themselves to early ‘80s material makes them, sure, an unabashed nostalgia act -- and, with one of the best four-album runs in rock history as their operative catalog, arguably the world’s most vital nostalgia act.

Playing the barely half-hour-long Los Angeles straight through isn’t a new/old thing for X; they did a short tour two years ago with the same conceit, including a show at L.A.’s House of Blues. But in 2010, it was only at their appearance at Slim’s in San Francisco that Manzarek showed up as a guest. This historic Strip reconvening had him joining in not just on five of the nine songs from the debut, but another handful from the succeeding albums in the second half of the set. Sometimes, on trademark organ or less trademark electric piano, he was going for Doors-style swirly hypnosis; at other times, as in “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss,” his playing took on a more playful approach, a la his most notable rock-organ successor, Steve Nieve of the Attractions.

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“The World’s a Mess…” remains a signature song for X, its furious energy summoning near-anarchic feelings in even reserved listeners, but it’s also a bit of a descriptive misnomer, since there’s really nothing remotely messy about the machine-precision at the heart of their power-trio instrumental approach. Bassist/frontman John Doe and drummer D.J. Bonebrake have few punk-era musical peers as a relentless rhythm section. And Zoom? Even with a lot of lines added to his once cherubic face, he’s still one of the seven wonders of the rock world, hands burning through a succession of the best rockabilly riffery ever heard while his beatific face and utterly calm body language betray no awareness whatsoever of the breakneck pace.

It’s up to Exene to really keep the music from seeming Too Perfect for Punk, whether it’s in her virtual poetry-recitation solo verses or her anti-Everly yet unassailably perfect harmonizing with Doe. Cervenka isn’t always a big talker in concert, but a mid-set technical breakdown had her sharing some weird, funny banter with the audience. (“Favorite food: Life. Favorite color: Consciousness.”) And she dedicated “The Unheard Music” to the band that’s in the news for being kept unheard: Russia’s Pussy Riot. Despite the health scare of recent years, in which she first announced she had MS and subsequently wondered if she’d been misdiagnosed, Cervenka was as eager as ever to “shake her snaky hair,” to quote “Devil Doll”… even if, as always, she looked to have loaned every single smile she had to spare to designated grinner Zoom.

Despite what Manzarek might say, the title of Southern California’s all-time greatest musical export remains a three-way tie, between the Beach Boys, the Doors, and X. In any case, though, Los Angeles wins. And so does Los Angeles, the album, which really doesn’t have much viable competition as the best punk album ever. The next chance to hear them play its songs semi-locally (sans Manzarek) is when they get out -- geeeet ouuuut! -- to nearby Anaheim for shows at the Observatory Sept. 7-8. Even if the heat wave’s over, delirium is guaranteed.

Set List:

Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not
Johny Hit and Run Paulene
Soul Kitchen *
Nausea *
Los Angeles
Sex and Dying in High Society *
The Unheard Music *
The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss *
It’s Who You Know
True Love
In This House That I Call Home
We’re Desperate *
The Have Nots *
Some Other Time *
Because I Do
The New World
Hungry Wolf
Back 2 the Base
White Girl
Year 1
Motel Room In My Bed *
Soul Kitchen (reprise) *


The Once Over Twice
Blue Spark
Devil Doll

(* with Ray Manzarek on keyboards)

Watch video of the band performing "Los Angeles" below:

Twitter: @chriswillman