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X/Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, N.J./Dec. 7, 2012

X the band.jpg

If you closed your eyes during X‘s recent show in Asbury Park, N.J., you could have been forgiven for thinking you had been transported back in time some 30-odd years, as the punk legends showed that there has been no real discernible change in their sound over their three-plus decades.

For the band itself, it might have felt a bit like a concert from days of yore, too. The gig, relocated to the smallish Wonder Bar from a much larger club severely damaged due to Hurricane Sandy, found the musicians playing in somewhat cramped quarters, underneath a low ceiling and with a full-throated few hundred fans pressed up to the smallish stage in a corner of the club. It made for a more intimate and, inevitably, sweatier experience all around than a typical X performance in a bigger room, in the type of setting the quartet presumably played on its way to fame in the late 1970s/early 1980s Los Angeles scene.

As bassist/vocalist John Doe remarked about the rising temperature near the stage after a few songs, upon shedding his leather jacket and fedora, “It’s hot … hot … hot.” As it turned out, he also could have been describing his band, too, as Doe and the classic X lineup — with singer Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake — careened through a largely electrifying 80-plus minutes that showed that the group, and its renowned first two albums, have aged mighty well.

Of the 26 songs performed, 18 were from those discs — 1980’s Los Angeles and 1981’s Wild Gift — which was to be expected, given that X has not released a new studio album since 1993, even while touring heavily since reforming in the early 2000s. And while some bands might not so easily get away with leaning on the same well-worn tunes nightly, it wasn’t hard to see why X’s nostalgia act is evidently forgiven: Quite simply, one can make the argument that no other band has sounded quite like this one, before or since.

To begin with, as the band proved time and again on this night, its catalog may be full of fast-paced songs delivered with raw emotion and youthful urgency, but describing the music as “punk” overly simplifies things. There were near-constant rockabilly underpinnings, mostly courtesy of Zoom, who blasted out blistering licks — despite somehow moving as few muscles as possible — that highlighted numbers like “Beyond and Back” and “In This House That I Call Home” and allowed him to make X’s cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit “Breathless” nearly his own.

Bonebrake, meanwhile, proved stout and sturdy on the many up-tempo, start-stop numbers, but also steadied the swinging groove of “Adult Books” and drove “The Hungry Wolf” with a pounding, military-style beat. And, of course, the element that most obviously sets X apart from other bands, punk or otherwise — the unique vocal blend of Cervenka and Doe — remained as awesome as ever. Cervenka’s higher register and Doe’s measured, rich tones enhanced the bouncy hook of “Adult Books,” made for sweet-sounding chaos on the raucous “We’re Desperate” and “The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Kiss,” and, naturally, shimmered on “See How We Are,” an acoustic duet that opened the encore and represented the show’s lone breather.
It all ended with the energy ramped back up several notches for a rollicking chug through “Devil Doll,” before Doe bid the crowd farewell “until next time,” his T-shirt now nearly sweat-soaked. It was a fitting image from a night that was, in the best way possible, a hot mess.

— By George Henn

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