- David Lee
- Punk legends X have released their first studio album in 27 years, and it’s a return to their rabble-rousing roots.
Uncertainty gets exhausting, doesn’t it? With music venues still shuttered for the time being, and any future reopenings likely to occur within limited capacities, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the music industry has been that of a shockwave, affecting musicians and venues at virtually every level.
Of course, with local venues closed since March, that’s hardly news to anyone. The question becomes how to respond, and a newly formed nationwide coalition of independent music venues is getting the ball rolling on a response to the massive financial blow suffered in the wake of the pandemic.
The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), comprising over 1,000 venues across the U.S. — among its number are Los Angeles’ Troubadour, New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom, Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club and, locally, The Black Sheep and Sunshine Studios — recently issued a letter to congressional leadership requesting assistance in the face of the “unique and dire situation” facing the industry.
In a statement released on April 22 via NIVA’s website, Dayna Frank, NIVA board president and owner of Minneapolis’ iconic First Avenue, explains: “Our passionate and fiercely independent operators are not ones to ask for handouts. But because of our unprecedented, tenuous position, for the first time in history, there is legitimate fear for our collective existence.”
Indeed, it’s unsurprising, but limits on gatherings have already taken a toll on small, independent music venues throughout North America, and even larger venues can’t hold out for too long in such circumstances. The statement continues:
“Due to the unique circumstances that have led to the indefinite closure of our industry — resulting in zero revenue for the foreseeable future — NIVA has requested specific funding programs to assist for the duration of the government’s mandatory shutdown. The goal is to enable independent venues to survive the crisis, reopen in the future, and once again contribute to the economic revival of our communities.”
The full letter, which outlines the organization’s specific requests, including modification of the SBA PPP loan program and reopening guidelines, is available at NIVA’s website, nivassoc.org.
While assessing the impact and “value” of the arts in simple economic figures is obviously reductive, NIVA quotes several eye-catching figures in their materials. Per Pollstar, venues are forecast to lose up to $8.9 billion in revenue if the remainder of 2020 stays “dark,” while the sixth edition of the Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (ACPSA) found that, in 2017, arts and culture contributed $877.8 billion, good for 4.5 percent of the nation’s GDP. A Chicago impact report, quoted in NIVA’s letter to Congress, estimated that for every $1 spent on a ticket, a total of $12 in economic activity was generated. Again, this is but a single lens for viewing the impact of live music, but it’s a good reminder of how much capital is in play, and how nothing exists in a cultural vacuum.
Many locals seem to have a particular soft spot for X in the American punk rock pantheon, as exhibited at frontman John Doe’s rather transcendent solo appearance at the Western Jubilee warehouse theater back in 2017 (see p. 26 for exciting Western Jubilee news). The band has been actively touring in its original configuration — Doe and co-vocalist Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer DJ Bonebrake — since the mid-‘00s, but little had emerged in the way of new material until the new LP’s surprise announcement.
At least in my mind, it’s impossible to extricate the rootsy, country-derived elements from X’s signature sound. Cervenka and Doe’s wonderfully sweet-and-sour harmonies recall high and lonesome folk as they express urban decay, and Zoom’s guitar work has always had plenty of rockabilly flash mixed into its raw power. Alphabetland, however, is among the band’s most stripped-down and straightforwardly “punk” work since the early ’80s, allowing the band’s always clever songwriting to cut through in an exhilarating rush.
Cuts such as “Free,” “I Gotta Fever,” and the title track could easily be lost gems from Los Angeles or Wild Gift; impressive for a band now working in their fourth decade. The longest track, clocking in at a mere 3:04, is a terrific R&B-kissed reimagining of “Cyrano de Berger’s Back,” which originally appeared on punk/deathrock supergroup The Flesh Eaters’ 1981 LP A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die.
It can be trite to imply any given piece of music “exemplifies” any given era, but X’s vibrant rabble-rousing is, if nothing else, a very welcome listen for our times and proof that an artist’s best work is never behind them.