Judge Russell Engebretson ponders Exene Cervenka's career before she became Mrs. Viggo "Aragorn" Mortenson.
"In the seventies, rock became arena bands playing really slick, boring, gutless, soulless pop crap, and there were a lot of us trying to figure out a new sound and a way to bring back the essence of what rock and roll meant to us growing up in the '50s and '60s."—Billy Zoom, founder of X.
This incandescent set—by the best punk rock band you never heard (my apologies to the fans)—was filmed live in Los Angeles at the House of Blues on November 26 and 27, 2004. The original band members are all onstage for this 25th-anniversary concert of their album debut, and it's their first live performance captured on video.
Band members are DJ Bonebrake (drums), Exene Cervenka (vocals), John Doe (bass guitar, vocals), and Billy Zoom (guitar). The songs, an excellent sampling from their 25-year career, are listed below:
• Your Phone's Off the Hook, But You're Not
Bonus Songs (Exene and John acoustic duets):
X was formed in 1977, recorded their first album in 1980 (Los Angeles, produced by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek), and released several albums throughout the 1980s that cemented the band's cult status. Billy Zoom, guitarist and founder of the band, left the group in 1986; he rejoined in the early 1990s. Though no new material has been recorded since 1993, the band continues to perform occasional live shows. They seem to finally be gaining the recognition they deserved over two decades ago.
X never garnered mainstream success; they were too melodic and musically sophisticated for the punk rockers, yet too punkishly hardcore for the alternative crowd. Rockabilly, punk, and pop styles were effectively commingled in their music, but the musicians never forsook their hard punk rock signature sound. Although Zoom would probably despise the comparison, and their musical sensibilities are very different, the group is an instrumental power trio similar to Led Zeppelin: a drummer, bass player, non-instrument-playing vocalist, and one guitarist to play rhythm and lead. I also hear echoes of Grace Slick and Marty Balin, Jefferson Airplane's lead singers, in the vocal duets between Exene Cervenka and John Doe: Their quirky, soaring harmonies alternately compete with and complement one another. While Cervenka and Doe cannot match the technical vocal virtuosity of Slick and Balin, they make up for it in pure, exuberant enthusiasm.
Besides the music, the concert is framed with some very brief commentary from each band member; a few of the comments are made between the regular set and the encore. All the musicians are bright and articulate, which left me wanting to hear more. If you are hungry for more interviews with the band, X: The Unheard Music, a documentary from 1986 long out of print on VHS, was recently released on DVD. I remember being impressed with the tape on its release, and it does contain interviews, music videos, and an array of personal observations about the punk rock scene (which was already fading away). It would make a nice companion DVD to set alongside X: Live in Los Angeles.
Choosing a more retro style to film the concert, director Amber Cordero captures the white-hot energy of the live performance sans hyperkinetic edits—a wise choice, since X delivers an enthusiastic, high-energy set that would only be obscured by the annoying MTV style of music video editing that is fashionable nowadays. Technically, the widescreen anamorphic DVD presentation looks fine, with decent color saturation and no obvious blemishes, though some detail is lost in the darker picture areas due to a slightly heightened contrast. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is vibrant and decently balanced for a live show, and the Dolby 2.0, as usual, sounds dull in comparison. The clear keep case is lined with concert stills of the band and includes a glossy eight-page insert with more photos, a song list, and admiring commentary from Flea, who was an intensely devoted young fan of X.
One of the bonus features is photographs taken by Billy Zoom (at all of the band's concerts he took snapshots of the audiences), which would be more fun to watch if one knew the dates and locations, but that information is not supplied because Zoom did not bother to index the pictures in any way. The one other extra is a pair of acoustic duets between John Doe and Exene Cervenka with Doe strumming his steel-string guitar like a true folk-singing troubadour; in this intimate setting, stripped of amplifiers and electric instruments, their passionate vocals ring out strong and clear.
This concert disc is a must-own for the fan, of course, and I heartily recommend a rental to anyone who is even marginally interested in the punk, new wave, or alternative genres of rock music. X can be compared to Black Flag, The Clash, or other punk rockers of that time, but they forged their own unique sound in the '80s and created music that transcends mere commercial product. I hope the release of X: Live in Los Angeles brings them many new listeners.
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