As I constantly, possibly even to the point of nausea (pardon the pun, if you get it), remind people, my favorite band is X!
I’ve posted about them before on here, offering opinions on which albums of theirs I like best (though, with the exception of Los Angeles and More Fun in the New World being either number one or number two, that list is always shifting around), and I’ve spammed my friends on Facebook’s newsfeeds with elusive videos of live performances by the band! Hell, I (accidentally) hijacked my girlfriend’s Tumblr account and reblogged several pictures of frontwoman Exene Cervenka only last week! Bottom line: I love this band. Enough to do crazy things. Like stand through a 90 minute documentary about them. Twice!
Yes, friends, X was in town this past weekend for a two night stay at Irving Plaza! The minute I saw the dates announced, I dragged Felicia to the box office to get our tickets for the Friday, September 30th performance, since she works on Saturdays. The gigs were part of a tour they had going on to celebrate more than 30 years as a band, and of the release of their seminal debut album, Los Angeles. Not that Rolling Stone magazine means anything these days, but they were right to include the band’s first two albums on their picks for the 500 greatest albums. I’ll never forget when or where I first heard that album, and my initial reaction to it was that I liked it: I don’t mean that I thought it was okay, or that it had one good song on it and the rest would probably grow on me if I listened to it more. I liked Los Angeles! Enough to give it another spin after I got off the bus to school and waited for my class to start. Even on their first listen, songs like “The Unheard Music” and “Sugarlight” really stood out! With a first impression like that, the chance to hear these songs performed live front to back was too good to pass up!
The night started with a screening of the band’s documentary, The Unheard Music. Irving Plaza is a standing room only venue, so some of the crowd got a bit restless over the 90 minute duration, but I always enjoy watching this carefully put together film – X did always have a unique style about them, as displayed in their album artwork and DIY lyric sheets. On my way to the show, I sort of questioned the decision to show the film, since we’d be hearing a lot of the featured songs during the show, but in practice it worked. It felt as close to a drive-in theater as I’d ever get, so I enjoyed it.
After the film, there was a break while the stage crew set up and put out drinks and setlists for the band. From our front row spots, Felicia and I had a good look at the setlist, and it looked pretty killer! As the last strains of the pre-show Ramones songs faded from the venue’s PA system, X took the stage. Felicia and I were right in front of guitarist Billy Zoom’s amp, and had a good view of Exene too (much to Felicia’s delight, Exene was wearing some pretty sweet boots). DJ Bonebrake clapped his drumsticks to count off the beat for the first song, and we heard a blast of guitar riffs! – but not much else. Turns out that Felicia and I were too far up front and were so close to Billy Zoom’s amp that literally all we could hear was his guitar! Most people, looking forward to a show and having an experience like that, would have called it a ruined night, but thankfully X knows how to pull a crowd, and Billy’s guitar playing is interesting enough that it was still a damn good show! We could still hear the crowd, so it was cool hearing the audience sing along with the otherwise inaudible Exene and John Doe.
After the album set was over, the band was tuning back up and Felicia and I seized that opportunity to move to the back of the venue. We still had a decent view of the stage, and the sound was dramatically improved! The rest of the show was a mix of songs spanning their first four albums (the band has sour feelings about their fifth album, and Billy Zoom left before they recorded the following two, so they don’t play much from them), and for songs that were written and recorded as much as 30 years ago, the band really outdid themselves with these performances! There was little in way of stage banter, beyond bassist/vocalist John Doe dedicating their song “The New World” to the protesters on Wall Street. That’s another thing I really like about X: their songs can be political, but it’s not heavy-handed like other bands, and the lyrics can apply to any era. It was always better before they voted for what’s-his-name, whether it’s Reagan, the Bush family, or Obama.
After “Devil Doll” brought the first set to an explosive end, the band left the stage for a few minutes before John and Exene returned with an acoustic guitar and surprised the audience with an acoustic rendition of one of the finest songs in their catalog, “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.” The second I heard the opening notes being strummed, I was completely stunned! The song wasn’t even on the setlist, is rarely performed, and is one of my absolute favorite X songs! Definitely a crowning moment of awesome! After the song was over, the band came out and played three more songs before calling it a night.
One would think that nothing could top such a night for me, right? Possibly true, but once I found out that I had a free Saturday evening (and Felicia encouraged me a bit), I decided to grab a ticket to the next night’s show! I was definitely glad that I did, since they somehow managed to bring it just as hard the second night! The layout was mostly the same, starting with the movie (though this time I decided to buy a beer for $7 and try to prolong the can’s life by sipping only when I saw the letter X on the screen; it was empty by the halfway mark, which becomes even more pathetic when I tell you I arrived 15 minutes late!), then doing the Los Angeles set, followed by a selection of other songs. The setlist got switched up a bit, with some songs being dropped, allowing fan-favorites (because, let’s face it, with X you’re either a fan or not – there really aren’t casual listeners) like “Blue Spark” and “White Girl” to be played. The biggest change was, of course, the acoustic encore, which rivals “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” for the highlight of the weekend: “See How We Are,” which is the title track from their sixth album, and one of the most perfect songs I have ever heard. I can’t place one above the other, but both songs were amazing to hear and really showcased John and Exene’s unique harmonies.
Both shows were incredible, and I’m really glad I got to see a band I love twice in one weekend! I already told Felicia that any time X is in New York – or their cowpunk alter-egos, The Knitters – I’m going to every show. I highly recommend seeing them: tickets are relatively cheap, the songs are great, and the band has an energy that even most of the bigger bands I’ve seen, like Whitesnake and Opeth, can’t touch.