Punk pioneers rock City Winery


Photo Courtesy of Lou Foglia

X at City Winery Sept. 2

By Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

Tables adorned with candles and wine glasses created an atmosphere fit for a performance by Wayne Newton or a member of the Rat Pack, but the blue-lit stage at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St., was set for a different kind of act on Sept. 2. 

Formed in Los Angeles in 1977, X was among the first wave of punk rock bands in America. With music inspired by rockabilly with a pinch of honky-tonk, X not only offers the raw, agro sound that most people associate with punk rock, but the band is also pure roots rock ‘n’ roll through and through.

X opened with “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not,” the first track from its 1980 debut album Los Angeles which the group performed in its entirety.

Nearly all of X’s songs are sung by lead singer Exene Cervenka and bassist/vocalist John Doe, who were married from 1980–1985, making them the Johnny Cash and June Carter of punk. However, the songs are not duets in the traditional sense of the word.

Doe was dressed in a black suit jacket with a black-and-white western-style shirt and a matching bolo tie, a perfect representation of the band’s ties to rockabilly and early country music, one of many reasons it has been a major influence on groups from multiple genres such as The Gun Club and Social Distortion.

Song after song, the band cruised through its first album, precisely echoing the recorded material from more than 30 years ago but with all the energy and nuances that make live shows so popular with the group’s fans.

Despite being seated at tables, members of the audience grooved to the music, nodding their heads and swaying from side to side. Doe acknowledged City Winery’s setup. 

“For all of us up here, it’s a little disconcerting that you all are sitting down,” Doe said.

X played its cover of  “Soul Kitchen,” The Doors’ 1967 song. Even for a band involved in an innovative and controversial movement in popular American music, X broke the “rules” by covering the song on their debut album. This was a bold move because the punk movement of the late ‘70s was about destroying the norm and breaking away from the stylings of their predecessors, but Los Angeles was produced by the late Ray Manzarek, keyboard player in The Doors, which may have influenced X’s choice to cover the hit.

After the song, the band dedicated the night’s performance to Manzarek, who died from Bile Duct cancer in 2013.

Audience members erupted when the band played the first few notes of the album’s sixth track, “Los Angeles,” one of its most popular tunes. Most of the audience was singing along word-for-word with Exene and Doe, singing, “She had to leave… Los Angeles, she had to get out, get out!”

Though the members of the group are in their late 50s and early to mid-60s, they rocked out the venue and kept everyone on the edge of their seats—partly because there was no standing room but also because they performed with the intensity of musicians half their age. Both Exene and Doe were clearly in their element. Exene was swinging her hair and Doe bounced his leg in time with the songs. Doe would even occasionally glissando the keyboard that was left on stage after they played the latter half of the album.

The fast, chopping rhythms of guitarist Billy Zoom’s Gibson Les Paul combined with the snare high-hat beat of DJ Bonebrake’s drum and Doe’s walking bass lines provided the backdrop for Exene’s soulful yet shrill pipes that make up the band’s classic sound. The band plays with all its original members, a rarity in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, especially punk rock, which is notorious for premature deaths and deep-rooted but asinine quarrels that prevent some bands from ever touring or reuniting with their   original lineups.

After the intermission, the group played material that showcased its ability to transcend genre and unchain itself from the confines that punk rock can have with a cover of Leadbelly’s “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes,” a song they seldom perform.

The band dramatically closed the show by exiting through a red curtain to the boisterous praise of their fans who had abandoned their seats. The crowd called for an encore from the band by clapping and chanting in unison, and they were successful. X took the stage once more and played a few more songs from its three decades worth of material, including another fan favorite, “Adult Books,” from its second album, Wild Gift.