X formed as a first wave punk rock band in 1977 in Los Angeles, California. Before long, the band uniquely branched into punkified Americana, country, folk, and rockabilly. Despite a lack of commercial success, X developed a strong cult following internationally. Some 45 years later, X continues to perform as the original quartet. X released its eighth and most recent studio, Alphabetland, in 2020, its first album in 27 years and, after a forced COVID hiatus, is touring to promote the album two years after its release.
Vocalist Exene Cervenka and drummer D. J. Bonebrake are 66 years old, vocalist/bassist John Doe is 69, guitarist Billy Zoom is 74. Doe and Cervenka divorced in 1984. Cervenka was diagnosed and possibly misdiagnosed (allegedly) with multiple sclerosis in 2009. Zoom survived bladder cancer in 2015. Despite the numerous personal challenges over five decades, the veteran band rocked the Rooftop at Pier 17 in an opening set for the Psychedelic Furs on July 15.
The four musicians took their positions on the breezy outdoor stage under the summer sun, with a view of downtown Manhattan skyscrapers, the Brooklyn skyline, and sailing crafts on the East River. For most of the performance, Zoom sat on a stool near Bonebrake, behind the front line of Cervenka and Doe. The set opened with the first track from the debut album, Los Angeles, “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not,” a song that began with a speedy rockabilly riff before Cervenka started crooning a verse and Doe offered the band’s trademark off-kilter harmony vocals on the chorus. For the second song, “Free,” from the band’s 2020 release, ALPHABETLAND, the roles reversed as Doe sang lead, with Cervenka singing in unison through much of the song. For the uninitiated, early arrivals who may have come to see the Psychedelic Furs, X established its musical footprint with these two songs. The entire set would be composed of fast punk songs with an undercurrent of American roots music, dual vocal harmonies, and Zoom’s stinging guitar riffs and leads.
As the performance progressed, Zoom increasingly stood away from his stool to join the front line, playing saxophone on several songs, sometimes switching from guitar to saxophone within the same song. Bonebrake also moved from drums to vibraphone on a few songs, with auxiliary band member Craig Packham of the Palominos briefly replacing Zoom on drums. A sporadic disappearing act, Packham also played guitar periodically. X closed the set with a superfast and supercharged cover of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” also from X’s debut album.
By comparison, the Psychedelic Furs’ set a half hour later was fairly tame. The evening began with X’s raucous rock and roll energy and then transitioned to the Furs’ mild and middle-of-the-road sound. Both X and the Psychedelic Furs performed at their best, but X was wilder.
- Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not
- Because I Do
- The Hungry Wolf
- White Girl
- Dancing with Tears in My Eyes (Regent Club Orchestra cover)
- Come Back to Me
- I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
- It’s Who You Know
- Water & Wine
- Goodbye Year, Goodbye
- True Love
- Los Angeles
- Motel Room in My Bed
- Soul Kitchen (The Doors cover)