Stagecoach 2009: The Knitters -- X marks the spot
To understand the great debt that first-wave punk rock owes to the early “hillbilly” country music of the Appalachian Mountains, one need look no further than the Knitters. Led by ‘70s punk legends Exene Cervenka and John Doe of X, the Knitters played a host of unassuming country classics, including “Poor Old Heartsick Me,” by the Carter Family, with admirable purity of purpose on Sunday night in the Palomino tent.
Mellowed by age in the edgy way that only former punkers can be, the two seasoned performers bantered back and forth with each other and the crowd like a bizarro Martin and Lewis.
“You guys rock!” yelled a guy in baggy shorts from atop one of the many hay bales in the tent. “Thank you, so do you,” said Doe, before asking Cervenka, “What should we play next?”
“I thought we’d play some Carter Family,” Cervenka said sweetly, in her odd maid’s uniform with polka dot apron, red-and-white-striped tights, loose-fitting boots, red bangles with lipstick to match and stringy hair just a shade more fierce than her lips -- the only indication that she has not spent her entire life baking cookies in the high plains.
“Carter Family, who’s that?” deadpanned Doe. “They’re not related to Mötley Crüe are they?”
The band -- anchored by Dave Alvin and his hard-driving electric guitar, D.J. Bonebrake on snare and shiny washtub bass drum and a cool-as-gin-on-ice Jonny Ray Bartel on upright bass -- reminded one that X was one of punk rock’s most fluent and musically literate bands. Now they’ve taken country music and wrangled it into the same refreshingly forthright mold that they used for their early country-at-core hits, such as “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene.”
The Knitters set was full of respect tossed out to some of the genres most respected performers. “I don’t know if he’s done yet, but Ralph Stanley’s playing over there,” said Doe, pointing toward the neighboring tent. “We want to dedicate this song to him, and we’ll play it in tune just to be nice.”
The joke got a laugh out of the devoted fans who filled about a third of the tent. “We like to play in tune as much as possible,” said Cervenka. More laughter. “Exene likes to say we’re highly informal,” continued Doe.
“The higher we get, the more informal we are,” quipped Cervenka, effortlessly delivering the punch line. “It doesn’t smell funny in here. I’m not used to that. This must be a drinking crowd.”
Cervenka still charms her audience by stalking in front of the microphone like a purring panther in a cage, and Doe delivers his slightly off-kilter, nasally vocals with much the same fierce but relaxed aplomb that he always has.
After playing the vivaciously tongue-in-cheek song, “Poor Little Critter on the Road,” the band wrapped up with a startlingly original take on the terribly overdone Steppenwolf tune “Born to Be Wild.” Who knew a song that has become a monster-rock cliché could be stripped down to its essence in a way that not only makes it palatable again, but causes it to actually sound brand new?
That might just be the most outlaw thing I’ll see all weekend.
-Post and photo by Jessica Gelt