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X keeps it fresh as an open wound

The Novo, Los Angeles, November 22, 2017

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

X did not celebrate its 40th anniversary with much ballyhoo. There were no celebrity special guests. Not much reminiscing. Instead, the band rocked hard, like they've been doing for the past four decades, which was more than party enough.

Singer/bassist John Doe mentioned at one point how much this city has changed. Tonight's venue was the fancy Novo, not some dive bar. The streets outside were filled with bright lights decked out for the holidays. So, in many ways, X's original vision of "Los Angeles" was obscured. Nevertheless, X's musical prowess remains undiminished.

Doe called "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts" either a mantra or a sing-along. Its lyric is litany of, well, bad thoughts. This live version differed significantly from its original recording, and took on - dare we say it? - a jazz tone with DJ Bonebrake playing vibraphone and Billy Zoom blowing saxophone. Doe and Cervenka's words still ring true when Doe sings, "Woody Guthrie sang about B-E-E-T-S, not B-E-A-T-S." Zoom also added saxophone to Exene Cervenka's mournful "Come Back to Me."

Although X knows how to mellow the music, it has by no means gone soft. Many of this concert's highlights were some of the band's harder songs, like "We're Desperate," "Your Phone's Off the Hook (But You're Not)" and "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene." While Bonebrake pounded away, Doe's restless left leg shook in time, Cervenka flailed around, as only she can, and Zoom (who now sits on a chair when playing live) appeared relaxed while throwing down rockabilly punk riffs.

Dave Alvin preceded X with a rocking set accompanied by his Guilty Ones. He joked how he didn't mess up X too much during the two years he was in the band. He didn't, of course. And besides, he's just too good of a songwriter to remain a sideman - with any band. He sang "4th of July," a song he wrote for X, on Thanksgiving eve. The holiday may have changed, but the song's bittersweet mood still fit. Before performing it, Alvin gave a shout-out to his hometown of Downey, and other surrounding communities, like Bellflower and Lynwood. He dedicated "Out of Control" to the Inland Empire, and worked in his three wonderful music history songs, "Haley's Comet," "Long White Cadillac" and "Johnny Ace Is Dead."

Mike Watt opened the show with his soulful Secondmen, and showed off his flying fingers on the bass. Alejandro Escovedo was also scheduled to perform, but cancelled because of his bandmate Scott McCaughey's recent stroke. Doe mentioned McCaughey's Gofundme site during X's set.

It's hard to believe X has been at it for 40 years. Its music is timeless, though, so there's no telling how much longer they'll be chronicling their hometown in song. And tonight, that music was still as fresh as an open wound.