Friday, December 7, 2007

Night out with the Knitters. . .

John Doe and Exene, still at it, tearing up the Sons. . .

Years ago, back in my wild college days on the West Coast, popular music was all about New Wave. You had your Blondie, Devo, Oingo Boingo, and leading the charge, The Police. New Wave's bastard stepbrother was Punk, emerging in England as well as New York and Los Angeles about the same time. While New Wave was safe and bouncy, fun to pogo around on the dance floor to, Punk was the real deal: dangerous, loud, sweaty, tatooed and not the sort of bands Johnny Carson would have on his show. From England, of course, came The Sex Pistols. From New York, the Ramones. And out on the west coast, Punk was all about X: Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D. J. Bonebrake. The band went wildly popular around 1980 or so, when most of us suburban white boys were still listening to Boston and Kansas. But that soon changed as college and late-night enlightenment opened our minds, so by 1982 when I ended up at Western Washington University in Bellingham for my last two years of college, I'd graduated to Talking Heads, The Clash. . . and X.

X. . .back in 1980 or so. . .

I saw X only once during their popular punk era: a show in 1983 at WWU, when they filled the student union ballroom so completely and worked the crowd into such a thrashing frenzy that I'll never forget the way our sweat and breath condensed on the ceiling and rained back down on us. X was electrifying: John Doe thrashing on the bass and trading lead vocals with Exene, who mainly slumped over the microphone stand, wailing off-key. D.J. kept time in the background; Billy Zoom was the epitome of "cool," standing straight and solid and hardly moving as he played six string, his blond hair swept back in a perfect pompadour.

Exene, wailing like a cat, up front and center. . .Cindy Wasserman joins the band for vocals. . .
All this, of course, is meaningless nostalgia to those who weren't around for it--and I'm sure there were quite a few folks in attendance last night at Dallas' Sons of Hermann Hall who weren't even alive when I saw X in college. . .but X is still around, and they'd returned to town as "The Knitters," a side-project obstensibly featuring folk and rockabilly--and "cow punk"-- that they'd off and on toured as for almost as long as they'd been X (thie first Knitters record, "Poor Little Critter in the Road," was released in 1985. I bought it on casette tape, to tell you how long ago that was!). Their second record in 20 years, "Modern Sounds of The Knitters" has been released by Rhino.

John Doe. . .

Exene is still up front, older and heavier; John Doe seemingly hasn't aged, familar as much anymore for his acting gigs as his music ("Veronica's Closet"? Really??). D.J. has traded his mop of black hair for a nearly shaved head of grey, making him look amazingly like Cal Ripken Jr. Billy Zoom isn't a part of the Knitters project; Doe is the rhythm guitarist, and Johny Ray Bartel keeps time on the upright bass. And on lead guitar, the legendary roots/folk rocker Dave Alvin, a man with considerable musical chops of his own.

I'd like to say that The Knitters are a relevant and vital part of who X really are, but I really can't. While the music on the first Knitters record is distinct from that of X, Thursday night's show really seemed more an X Show with a different and more stripped-down lineup than it did pure "Knitters." Which, I guess, is understandable, because once you get past "Poor Little Critter In the Road" and "Wreckingball," well, hell, let's bring on "New World" and "Burning House of Love". . . with a contrified beat. Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the show, just that most of the time the Knitters got lost in X. Call a spade a spade: The Knitters are a Novelty act.

The Amazing Dave Alvin. . .

The give-and-take vocals between John Doe and Exene as X perfectly fit Exene's wailing cry of a voice, but Exene's voice is so ingrained as the voice of X that it's hard to get past that when the band becomes the Knitters with its emphasis on roots/folk rock. Indeed, the show's best vocal moments were when Cindy Wasserman, the lead singer of opening act Dead Rock West, shared the microphone with John and Exene. As a Dave Alvin fan, I was pleased to finally see him perform in person--the guy is an amazing guitarist--but I almost would've gladly traded a few songs from the Knitters' set to hear him sing as well.
But I don't think the crowd, skewing towards the older demographic (like the author), seemed to mind. To them, it was probably just enough to see X--most of the band, anyway--still up there slugging it out, playing small halls on Thursday nights. Or, to paraphrase the Porter Wagoner song covered, going down swinging.

D. J. Bonebrake, left, and Johny Ray Bartel. . .
Thanks to Mike, who tipped me off about this show and who joined us in Dallas, here's the set list:
Give Me Flowers While I'm Living (Doe and Alvin solo)
Try Anymore (Why Don't We Even (Doe and Alvin solo)
Poor Little Critter On The Road
Dry River
Baby Out Of Jail
Burning House Of Love
Wreck On The Hightway
Little Margaret
Bad Thoughts
Skin Deep Town
Someone Like You
I'll Go Down Swinging
Gone Gone Gone
In This House That I Call Home
Walkin' Cane
The Call Of The Wreckin' Ball
The New World
Poor Old Heartsick Me
Long Chain On
Born To Be Wild

Here's the whole band on stage at Sons of Hermann. . .

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