Meat Puppets
Mike Watt

December 23, 2017
The Observatory
Santa Ana, CA

Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Ron Lyon

It’s a tradition that X plays a series of shows in Los Angeles in late December. Hard to say if the holidays have anything to do with it, but it’s a gift for anyone lucky enough to see them. Perhaps because 2017 marks their 40th anniversary, X have gone to extra lengths to justify their longevity by delivering performances that exceed expectations. Such was the case at the Observatory.

Since undergoing a makeover in 2011, the Observatory has become a class establishment for cutting edge rock. For a band like X, it’s the perfect venue. Tonight, it was packed to the brim with a crowd waiting in wild anticipation for each act on bill, which also included alternative legends Mike Watt and the Meat Puppets.

After a short, unremarkable set from Dead Rock West, Mike Watt, best known as the bass player for Minutemen and Firehose, and the Secondmen came on at 8:00 and played a balls-to-the-wall 40-minute set of psychotic proto prog punk that was at once exhilarating and spontaneous. Joined by keyboardist Pete Mazich and drummer Jerry Trebotic, Watt exerted his booming bass and primal vocals, spinning heads and blowing minds in a free-for-all without a break in the action. Exhausting the audience to the very end, he shouted out “John Coltrane” before exiting.

Moving along, the Meat Puppets hit the stage at 9:00, and slowly warmed up the floor and upper reaches of the Observatory with their brand of quirky alternative, laced with bits of country and punk. It had been 25 years since I last saw the Meat Puppets in San Diego, on a night when riots broke out in Los Angeles after four police officers were acquitted of assaulting Rodney King.

Tonight, with a little less intensity in the air, guitarist Curt Kirkwood, his brother bassist Cris Kirkwood, drummer Shandon Sahm, and second guitarist Elmo Kirkwood (Curt's son), played a pliable set that wavered from straightforward to a more complex blend of jam band and psychedelia that kicked “Up On The Sun” into high gear. Later, they pulled out “Plateau,” which was famously covered by Nirvana. Just as they were beginning to take flight, the Meat Puppets’ time at the Observatory came to a sudden end. They could have easily played for another hour, and no one would have complained.

With three bands on the bill, time was of the essence, and X had a lot of ground to cover. So, just a little after 10:00, guitarist Billy Zoom auspiciously pulled up a stool, tuned up a bit, and was soon joined by drummer D.J. Bonebrake, bassist Joe Doe and singer Exene Cervenka. For the next hour and a half, X playfully pummeled the Observatory with songs from their seven studio albums.

Even after 40 years, X still invokes a breakneck pace in their set that’s frantic, exciting and titillating. At the Observatory, it was a contagious burst of energy that spilled into an audience that bopped, moshed and crowd surfed during virtually every song. Doe and Cervenka locked in their vocals, creating a sort of drone that spiraled and splayed over Zoom’s guitar lines. “Beyond And Back” and “In This House That I Call Home” got things off to joyful start, and “It Who You Know,” “The Once Over Twice” and “Adult Books” suspended the liveliness to exhilarating heights.

The band’s injected Jerry Lee Lewis “Breathless” with a punkish attitude that perpetuated a whiff of carelessness and abandonment sorely missing from much of today’s music. Both the stylish “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” and “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” found Bonebrake stroking the marimba amidst Zoom’s sweeping chords and subtle saxophone work to finish it off.

Crushing passion broke through on “Hungry Wolf” and especially “Los Angeles,” the band’s breakout song that defines their sound and origins. “Johnny Hit And Run Pauline” exhibits a proclivity for rockabilly, while “Soul Kitchen” more directly underscores the Doors connection (Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek produced the first four X albums).

The three-song encore was no less fervent as “White Girl,” “The New World” and “Devil Doll” were rolled out in quick succession to solidify a potent set list. Surrounded by friends and fans — in front, on the side and behind them — X is still, after 40 years, a fun and powerful rock and roll unit. Here’s hoping their traditional holiday hometown stand carries on for years to come.

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