Live Review

X - Trocadero (San Francisco, CA)

X on February 7, 1998

Who was that dapper fellow in the black cotton turtleneck and closely cropped hair walking onstage with John Doe and strapping on a guitar? Billy Zoom (!), looking fit and not a day older than the last time he performed with X in 1986.

On this magic night in a steamy, overcrowded San Francisco club, X was back. Zoom's return sparked an obviously great feeling from his fellow band members. The only real visual or musical change from the old days was how much Exene Cervenka smiled. She looked positively radiant glancing to her right at Zoom standing there, legs apart, grin on his face, throwing off his signature power rockabilly riffs. And the audience was nearly delirious. Remarkably, even though it was the first of what reportedly will be a series of reunion shows, the band was red hot, like the most experienced of road bands on their best night.

I went to the show worried it would be an empty nostalgia trip. These comebacks are generally as depressing as a high school reunion. And, X's political turf is now a bit muddied. While the continued economic stratification of urban America has made X look like prophets, it is hard to generate the same outrage now that Clinton and a robust economy have dialed back Reagan's overt war against the poor. Meanwhile, X's rant against commercial radio's boycott of "The Unheard Music", as they tagged it in one of their best-known songs, has been blunted by the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and the subsequent cash-crop capitalization on the alt-rock swill that followed in their footsteps.

But nothing about this evening felt like a step back. X still matters, and the songs still ring true. Performing material mainly from Los Angeles and Wild Gift, the band rocked surprisingly hard, losing absolutely nothing in the years. Their unique brand of Americana -- three parts rockabilly, two parts punk/garage rock and one part rhythm & blues -- proved timeless and exhilarating. The quartet charged through all their best material, opening with "Johny Hit And Run Paulene" and closing with "Your Phone's Off The Hook, But You're Not". In between, they reeled off one favorite after another: "White Girl", "We're Desperate", "Los Angeles", "Adult Books", "New World", "The Once Over Twice", "In This House That I Call Home", and so on. No lame-ass rearrangements or slowed-down tempos -- just the straight goods.

The crowd (median age maybe 35) was as excited as I've seen in years at a club show, which tells you something about either X's fans, X's music, or the state of the current club scene. Or all three. The place was jumping -- people dancing, singing along and recognizing the first note of each song like amphetamined Deadheads.

Ultimately, what this show proved is just how much of a real band X was and is. Just as X's best songs, such as "New World", focus on the power of the collective, the band members themselves always seem intent only on the overall sound rather than their piece. The sum of the parts -- Exene and John Doe's dual vocals, like two lead singers running down parallel tracks, D.J. Bonebrake's perfect drum parts and skin tight rhythm bottom with Doe, and, of course, Zoom's soaring guitar leads -- creates a much greater whole. While there's no need to knock subsequent X guitarists Tony Gilkyson or Dave Alvin, each fine players, they couldn't replace Zoom in X any more than Patti Smith could have replaced Exene.

If there was any question before, and there shouldn't have been, the perspective of time and this exhilarating, perfect show prove that X is simply one of the best American rock bands ever Accept no substitutes.