TVD Live: X with Squirrel Nut Zippers
at the 9:30 Club, 9/5

Call them the good X.

Unlike that corporate overlord’s sudden new name for Twitter, this one has been banging out the finest of Los Angeles punk since 1977. That they’re still around in the original configuration, sounding great, after decades of commercial indifference, intermittent personnel changes, a farewell tour, and years’ long hiatuses, is a reason to cheer. And a triumphant 24 song show at the 9:30 Club, capping a two-day residence in DC, showed them at their best.

Not that there hadn’t been a few glitches this summer, too. Washington was among a dozen dates that had to be postponed due to a member recovering from an emergency surgery. The member wasn’t named in the announcement, but guitarist Billy Zoom had been diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2015 and though he has since been proclaimed cancer-free, has gone in for additional chemotherapy.

Zoom, now 75, was first to get on the 9:30 stage, though, to plug in his guitar and begin to play along to the recorded Link Wray “Rumble” intro, albeit atop a tall stool. Always the picture of sleek, pompadoured cool in the X heyday, he looks a bit like his own grandpa now (but among long time fans doesn’t).

His ringing riffs, born of classic Chuck Berry and Cliff Gallup, were all still there, though he seemingly had to remind himself to smile. Zoom had built a stage presence based on blissful tranquility as he tore through the solos, intent on exploding the notion that rock guitarists have to also show theatrical expressions of pain as they solo. This time, though, the smiles sometimes bordered on grimaces as the show continued.

Forever remembered for their driving punk velocity and compelling, off-kilter harmonies, there was always something that set X apart from their contemporaries, from the poetic lyrics of lead singer Exene Cervenka and the almost hill country harmonies provided by she and her ex, bassist John Doe, along with their deep knowledge of American music—covering songs along the way from Elvis-era songwriter Otis Blackwell, to the obscure 1930s dance band the Regent Club Orchestra, to fellow Angelino groundbreakers The Doors (whose Ray Manzarek famously produced their first four albums)—to name three songs they covered at the 9:30.

By now, they’re also expanding their sound to the degree that at one point, Zoom was playing saxophone and drummer DJ Bonebreak was playing xylophone on stretched out versions of “Come Back to Me” and “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” that, crazy as it seemed, almost approached jazz. Though it was more the look of the band in this configuration that was more of a surprise than the sound.

When Bonebreak was on vibes on those two songs, Craig Packham took over on drums. He also filled out on acoustic guitar during Zoom’s forays on sax; or backing his electric lead on a couple of other songs. Peckham’s occasional help was the exception, though, and not the rule; the power of 21st Century X continued to be the original four, who brought primordial power to the works of their first couple of albums, a half dozen from their 1980 debut Los Angeles and seven from its 1981 follow-up Wild Gift.

But there was hope in X as more than an oldies band, with two new songs unveiled that they say the’ll record at the conclusion of the tour. Cervenka also expressed gratitude at how well the new stuff went over alongside the tried and true. Two others, including the opening “Water & Wine,” came from the 2020 album Alphabetland.

Cervenka’s presence, in a custom Western suit festooned with the X logo, question marks and the phrase “Klaatu Barada Nikto”—the words of the alien in “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” also set in Washington)—was always a focal point; her keening harmonies with her ex Doe a continuing high point.

The band has been switching up the set a bit at each show, though it was a similar list to the previous night at The Atlantis, the new club adjoining the 9:30 meant to evoke the storied club’s original site downtown. Because of the postponement, X was just about the last of the big names who were slated to perform in the smaller space this summer before it’s turned over to newcomers.

The band seemed to appreciate the bigger space at the 9:30, though, in part because they had Squirrel Nut Zippers as opener, which Cervenka proclaimed as her favorite. It may not seem that a retro-mad former ska band from Raleigh largely remembered as a novelty act would be a good match for the big city punks. But Squirrel Nuts, even in a newer configuration, were nothing but fun.

Like the headliner, they had a wider knowledge of classic tunes and sounds, and they had a verve and drive that came from hot jazz, Dixieland, klezmer and maybe vaudeville combined with a modern attitude. Still led by a greying Jimbo Malthus, the focus at first was on the bearded Dr. Sick who was nothing if not versatile, introducing the band, playing banjo, switching to musical saw and fiddle before the first song was through.

With a three piece horn section augmenting a New Orleans barrelhouse piano, several of the songs were led by the flamboyant Celia Blue who had time to get into three costume changes in the modest set. Though she didn’t have the distinctive tone of the band’s original singer Katharine Whalen, she brought her own style (when it was amplified adequately).

Remembered for their mid-1990s calypso-on-steroids radio hit on the afterlife, “Hell,” a lot of their other songs were just as notable. And Squirrel Nut Zippers seemed for a moment the kind of pure entertainment and swagger that’d be a good opener for any band, including X.

Water & Wine
In This House That I Call Home
We’re Desperate
Los Angeles
Bitter End
I’m Coming Over
Sex and Dying in High Society
Some Other Time
White Girl
Dancing with Tears in My eyes
Come Back to Me
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
Smoke & Fiction
The Unheard Music
You’re Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not
Motel Room in My Bed
Devil Doll

It’s Who You Know
Adult Books
Soul Kitchen

Happy Days Are Here Again
La Grippe
Put a Lid on It
Evening at Lafitte’s
Memphis Exorcism
Got My Own Thing Now
It Ain’t You
Can’t Take My Eyes Off You
Suits are Picking Up the Bill
Bad Businessman
Prince Nez
Ghost of Stephen Foster

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