The best punk is a mix of power and restraint. The staple L.A punk band X had plenty of power on Thursday night at the Roxy, where it kicked off a four-night stand performing its best albums front-to-back.
Thursday’s set focused on 1980’s “Los Angeles,” the band's debut and a defining document of the era. All four original members -- singers John Doe and Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake -- have these songs in their marrow, and three decades on they can still rouse and spook a sold-out crowd.
But there was also some necessary restraint.
In recent months Cervenka disappointed fans with a series of social-media postings suggesting the recent Isla Vista shooting spree might be a conspiracy theory. She ran a sometimes kooky, sometimes disquieting (and now deleted) YouTube page devoted to “truther” culture that cast an unexpected pall over one of L.A.’s most beloved punk bands.
Fans wondered if she was OK (she’d previously been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis). Thursday’s set, gratefully, had no mention of any false-flag operations. It was all ferociousness and tenderness, a half-hour blast of one of L.A.’s finest rock records.
The album portion of the night barely lasted 30 minutes, but that was all the time X needed. Starting promptly at 9 p.m., the curtain rose to the gallop of “Your Phone's Off the Hook, But You're Not.” X was always defined by Doe and Cervenka’s close-harmony singing (a tactic taken from their beloved classic country records).
For all the tumult in Cervenka’s personal life, they still sound great together. Where peer Black Flag was raw muscle and the Germs provocateurs, X was always eerie and focused. The band remained so Thursday.
Doe said that playing the Roxy brought back memories of “hanging out on Sunset and San Vicente, getting loaded ... and we decided to start a fire in a dumpster. It was the best free entertainment you could ask for.”
The last time X performed “Los Angeles” live -- two and a half years ago -- the act brought its producer Ray Manzarek out to play keyboards. Manzarek, the Doors’ co-founder and its sonic architect, died last year, but X found a more-than-capable replacement.
The art-pop producer Jon Brion (he of Kanye West, Fiona Apple and countless other projects) jumped on organ for four songs, and no one could have looked happier to be there. Brion mashed atonal chords on the haunting “Nausea,” and bopped along with “Sex and Dying in High Society.”
When X closed out the first half of the concert with the rockabilly-goth of “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss,” the crowd of punky-fiftysomethings and their revivalist kids sang every last lyric. For a band that had briefly alienated its lifelong crowd, it felt like a welcome-back moment.
The latter half of the set was a looser, louder run through their career highlights. The band previewed future nights of this engagement with sinister reads on “White Girl” and “The Hungry Wolf,” off “Wild Gift” and “Under The Big Black Sun,” respectively. No one cared when Doe’s bass amp went fritzy, because this crowd already had “Because I Do” and “The New World” burned into its own L.A. coming-of-age stories.
X has lasted this long because the band didn’t live fast and die young. Instead, its members stayed careful students of classic Americana songwriting. It was a relief to have Cervenka back in genial good shape, because it's X’s craft and emotional complexity that made these albums worth returning to for decades. Go see them in person while you can.
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