To say that I had been anticipating this show would be an understatement – I had literally been waiting for 20 years to see it! I have had a near-lifelong love affair with the music of X, born one day while perusing cassettes at the local library and being unable to take my eyes off the arresting cover of “Live at the Whisky A Go-Go on the Fabulous Sunset Strip”. That album was a gateway to left coast punk for me and it is without question one of the finest live albums of the last 40 years. I had foregone an opportunity as a teen to see that incarnation of the band (with ace guitarist Tony Gilkyson sitting in for once and future guitar demi-god, Billy Zoom) figuring, “They’ll be back”. And it only took 20 years!
Opening with the one-two punch of “Your Phone’s Off the Hook” and “Sugarlight”, the band spent the next 50-something minutes showing the crowd exactly why they are one of the most critically-adored and respected American punk acts. Co-leaders Exene Cervenka and John Doe were spot on vocally, and Doe’s energy never flagged as he stomped and whipped his bass around and still managed to hit every note (an even more impressive feat given that he is just shy of turning 60 and looks almost the same as he did 30 years ago…the man has to have a picture in an attic somewhere!) Cervenka, physically more sedate than back in the day, looked amazing and unleashed every feral wail she had in her, creating the haunting counterpoint to Doe’s baritone croon that is the hallmark of their finest songs. Zoom, rock steady stage left, spit out fierce rockabilly riffs with ease, barely looking away from the ceiling except to flash his trademark grin. And DJ Bonebrake, long one of punk’s finest drummers, was on absolute fire! His breakdown in the middle of a smoking “Hungry Wolf” proves that you can have a tasteful drum solo, and his playing throughout was inspired. X have always struck me as a kind of missing link between the Doors and Jane’s Addiction – imbuing their songs with the dark sexuality of the former while foreshadowing the latter’s preoccupation with the City of Angel’s romantic allure.
The setlist stuck to their unimpeachable first four albums, and the crowd responded to “Los Angeles” and “The Once Over Twice” like the true classics that they are. The performances were fierce, passionate and in several places transcendent. This super-fan missed hearing “The World’s A Mess (It’s In My Kiss)” or the underrated later gem “Around My Heart”, but those are minor quibbles. When you have a catalog that’s a veritable embarrassment of riches and a finite opening spot, something’s gotta give and the band managed to give their all to 18 songs that oozed sincerity and desire. Not a minute was wasted (Doe commented that they usually are chattier but had to keep to their time) and if the increasingly loud chorus of cheers are any indication, quite a few converts were made in the process. All I know is that by the time the band exited stage right and Zoom came out to take his traditional photos of the crowd, I had a grin plastered ear to ear and my voice was hoarse from screaming along. Well done!
The headliner was a study in contrast. Synched to a multimedia backdrop, Blondie stuck to the hits and played them with a slick proficiency that was admirable and the crowd lapped it up. Debbie Harry commanded the stage and was very clearly enjoying herself, beaming as she belted out the classics in that inimitable alto of hers, while co-founder Chris Stein alternated between rhythm guitars and well-crafted solos (all while bedecked in an X shirt…a classy touch!) The set belonged to Clem Burke, the Keith Moon of NYC punk, who played like a beast unleashed, flipping his sticks 10 feet in the air without missing a beat and playing manic fill after fill – it was a treat to watch a master in his element. Ably abetted by three auxiliary players (including longtime bassist Leigh Foxx), the band cranked out disco-infused new wave standards that were enjoyable despite their familiarity and radio ubiquity and it was a great way to wind down a Friday evening. There are far worse things than witnessing a living legend play some of the most popular songs of the late-70s and early-80s!