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Live review: X at the Wiltern

December 20, 2009 |  5:12 pm

The seminal L.A. punk band's messages of youthful desperation and searching remain as biting as ever.

Punk rock was still new back in the early '80s -- with a new president in the White House and an auto industry in crisis -- when the band X first sang of a "new world" and its season of economic tension: "Don't forget the Motor City," songwriters John Doe and Exene Cervenka implored. "Just give us what you can spare, 20 or 30 pounds of potatoes or 20 or 30 beers."

As Cervenka and Doe sang those words from 1983's "The New World" at the Wiltern Theatre on Saturday, it sounded again like a song written for these times, fueled on passion and distrust. The night's 90-minute performance was X's annual hometown "Merry Xmas" show, but the band's Reagan-era stories of youthful desperation and "have nots" remained as biting as ever.

The quartet's quick, frantic tunes could still land and pop like cluster bombs. From the first moments of "In This House That I Call Home," Doe and Cervenka sang with the band in perfect, chaotic harmony, undiminished at all from X's classic sound.

"Nausea" rose from a fog of throbbing feedback, Billy Zoom's guitar grinding out an oppressive, discordant riff. There was a slower groove on "Blue Spark," darker and heavier, rolling like thunder from Doe's bass line. And D.J. Bonebrake opened "The Hungry Wolf" with a tribal beat of brutal intensity.

A mosh pit erupted on the anxious "Your Phone's Off the Hook, But You're Not," as a younger generation of punks and fellow travelers bounced and shoved in roaring communal ecstasy, not rage.

It was X's first Los Angeles concert since Cervenka was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis this year, but her performance appeared unaffected as she stood center stage in black cowboy boots and a matching dress, singing "The World's a Mess, It's in My Kiss."

The holiday season was acknowledged with poinsettias onstage and some Christmas lights on Bonebrake's drum riser. The band also performed two Christmas songs just released as a single: "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," the latter igniting from the same sped-up '50s riff as X's own "Johny Hit and Run Paulene."

The songs are the only new X recordings released since a cover of the Doors' "Crystal Ship" in 1998, the same year the band first reconvened with Zoom.

For longtime fans, hearing the old favorites again provided genuine joy, but the particular thrill and surprise that only new songs can provide has been missing from X's repertoire for too long. Band members have suggested that new material has been in the works in recent years, but in the lobby, only CDs from their various solo projects were on sale: from Doe and Cervenka, the D.J. Bonebrake Trio and the Bonebrake Syncopators.

Onstage, X remains a dependable, soaring presence, nearly 30 years after the release of its 1980 debut, "Los Angeles." Virtually all of the night was devoted to the band's acclaimed first four albums, but a second encore represented a welcome shift in tone, as Doe picked up an acoustic guitar and stood alone with Cervenka to perform "See How We Are."

The song is among the most evocative and emotional Doe has written, and it again reflected a time of uncertainty: "Gotta keep bars on all of our windows / See how we are / We only sing about it once in every 20 years."

At the end of 2009, the band's messages of unease and searching seemed to ring truer than ever.

--Steve Appleford

Photo:Exene Cervenka and John Doe. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times