Punk pioneers X to play Belly Up Aspen
If You Go …
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Sunday, April 5, 9 p.m.
Tickets: Belly Up box office; www.bellyupaspen.com
The songs of the storied punk band X are old, at this point, but they haven’t weakened with age. Tracks from their seminal 1980 debut such as “Los Angeles,” “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” and the speed-punk cover of “Soul Kitchen” could easily be mistaken for new songs from one of the countless raw, poetically inclined rock acts that X has inspired over the decades.
Unlike most of X’s contemporaries, the band is still touring with its original members-singer Exene Cervenka, singer/bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake. Few of the bands from the original American punk explosion of the late 1970s lasted more than a handful of years, as most lost members to the usual rock ’n’ roll excesses or turning on one another when success came. Through the years, they’ve survived a marriage and divorce between Doe and Cervenka, along with a few hiatuses, member departures and returns, and those rock’n’roll excesses.
Bonebrake credits the quartet’s survival to the fact that they never had a big hit — though they had punk cachet and a national following — and to luck.
“We didn’t make the big bucks, and that’s probably a good thing,” Bonebrake said from Los Angeles before heading out on a short spring tour through Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. “Because we also didn’t die of a drug overdose. We didn’t buy pounds of cocaine in 1980 because we had so much money. …. We stayed together because we needed the money, we needed to go on tour, but also it’s because the music is really good. It stands out.”
X is the kind of pure-hearted band that’s constantly being discovered by new fans. Every day a teenager, introduced to punk through a band like Green Day, is tracing the tradition back to NOFX, then Operation Ivy, the Misfits, and eventually to the originals like the Ramones in New York, the Sex Pistols in the U.K. and X in Los Angeles.
“What you hear is, ‘You changed my life,” Bonebrake said with a laugh. “You hear, ‘I was going through this terrible thing and I exorcised all my demons through those songs.’”
Looking out at the crowd from behind his drum kit, Bonebrake sees teen punks singing along and standing next to people his age — 59 — and older, with their kids (sometimes their grandkids).
“It’s pretty touching in a way,” he said.
Most of the time, though, when musicians name-check X as an influence, Bonebrake doesn’t hear it in the songs.
“I do the same thing: I might say I’m influenced by the Beach Boys, but nobody is going to hear that,” he said. “Maybe they’re psychically influenced. Something about our music gets in their soul and helps them get through life. It’s not necessarily a specific technical thing.”
The band has taken its classic rockabilly-influenced punk songs and rearranged them for the current tour, taking away some of the speed and volume but holding on to the intensity.
The reimagined songs were born out of a gig last summer at the Pickathon Indie Roots Music Festival in Happy Valley, Oregon.
“They wanted bands to play more acoustic sets,” Bonebrake recalled. “We said, ‘OK. Why not?”
X had dabbled with unplugged sets in the past. As early as 1984, Bonebrake, Cervanka and Doe were playing together in the acoustic side project the Knitters. In 1995, they recorded an acoustic album, “Uncorked.” This time around, they first tried playing with acoustic instruments and with Bonebrake on a cocktail drum, which didn’t work to their liking. But they honed the arrangements over nine months or so, played a handful of small West Coast gigs before Pickathon, and found new arrangements that complemented the slowed down takes on the fast and loud catalog.
“It’s somewhere between acoustic and really loud electric,” Bonebrake said. “Some of the songs actually rock out. It’s the old X, but it’s a little quieter, and it just feels different. It’s a little ethereal.”
The creepy “The Unheard Music,” for instance, driven by a steady grind of electric guitar and off-kilter group vocals (and The Doors’ Ray Manzarek, who discovered the band at the Whiskey a Go Go in West Hollywood and produced X’s first four albums, on keyboards) has been reimagined with a gentler hollow-body guitar tone and Bonebrake on vibraphone, but with the ghostly vocals in tact.
For the current tour, the band has added a fifth member — multi-instrumentalist Michael Kilpatrick — to fill in on drums while Bonebrake plays vibes and other percussion.
The new sound, which the band has dubbed “almost acoustic,” also led them to return to some songs they haven’t played live in years. “Drunk in My Past” and “Poor Girl” from the 1983 album “More Fun in the New World,” and “How I (Learned My Lesson)” from 1982’s “Under the Big Black Sun” among them.
Some diehards, surely, show up at an X show to hear the songs as they were recorded. But Bonebrake, nearly four decades into playing with X, is enthralled by expanding their sound.
“Some people want the head-banging X, and I like that, too,” he said. “But I like doing this.”
A buzzworthy duo, Folk Uke, opens the show. Comprised of singer-songwriters Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie (yes, that’s Willie and Arlo’s daughters) Folk Uke plays a clever brand of Americana.
“They’re really funny and they write great songs,” Bonebrake said.
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