The Damned/X - Live in Chicago (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Damned / X

Live in Chicago (2019)

live show

Last year I went to Camp Punk in Drublic in the middle of nowhere Ohio. (This year it’s been rebranded Camp Anarchy, but it’s the same thing.) While there were things about it that I liked (camaraderie, music, panel discussions), there were at least as many things that I disliked (camping, corporateness, high prices). The lineup of bands was once again pretty impressive, and there was certainly a temptation to return. Ultimately, sleeping on the ground was a deal breaker and I didn’t go back this year. The cool thing about the midwest punk festivals, is that it gets a bunch of bands touring through the area.

Instead of living in a tent and pooping in an outhouse, we decided to stay in a hotel and check out a few bands over two nights in Chicago. Three of the four main bands we saw (The Damned, TSOL and X) were heading to Camp Anarchy. Three of the four (The Bollweevils, The Damned and TSOL) had also played Punk Rock Bowling the weekend before. (It kind of reminds you how insular the punk festival circuit really is.) The headliners also shared a certain kinship. TSOL’s best known album, Dance With Me (1981), was heavily influenced by The Damned’s proto goth.

Night one was The Damned, X and Detroit Cobras at the House of Blues in Chicago on Thursday, May 30th. The venue is in the really touristy part of the Windy City. If you want to feel unattractive and poor, this is where you want to hang out. We pregamed at the dive bar made famous by the ‘70s Saturday Night Live skit, the Billy Goat tavern. Tallboys of Old Style were a relatively cheap $5, and the burgers fresh off the flat iron grill were not bad at all.

Until now I had somehow managed to avoid any of the House of Blues locations, but I thought the lineup justified a visit. The inside of the venue was designed to look like an old art deco theater. It was nice to look at, but the traffic flow was not great. The small main floor could only be accessed from a few narrow points, and was packed and virtually impossible to get to. People just sort of crowded around wherever they could. That being said, we could still see well and the sound was great.

Detroit Cobras opened the show and didn’t really do much for me. The Motor City band competently played their familiar brand of garage rock and soul, but it seemed a bit flat. It’s not that they were bad, it’s just that they felt more like background music than a band to be watched and engaged with. Most of the crowd seemed to enjoy them, but I used part of their set to take a leak and grab a $12 beer. Is there anything more punk than $12 beer and $200 VIP seating?

By contrast, X was engaging from the first notes of “In This House That I Call Home”. I had last seen X in a small club a few years back, and I think they were even better this time around. Vocalist Exene Cervenka was her normal awkward but charming self. Bassist/vocalist John Doe is always the rock star. Their slightly off kilter melodies and harmonies still blend perfectly. Billy Zoom’s right hand moves across the guitar strings as fast as ever, even if he sits for most of the show. DJ Bonebrake still pounds his drums like a madman and hasn’t aged a bit.

Most of the songs came from the band’s first three albums, but the setlist was kind of strange. (There was no “Los Angeles” or “The World’s a Mess;It’s in My Kiss”). Los Angeles (1980) was well represented with “Sugarlight”, “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, but You’re Not”, “Nausea”, “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” and The Doors cover “Soul Kitchen”. (The Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek produced the record.) There were plenty of other favorites too like “We’re Desperate”, “White Girl” and “Hungry Wolf”.

For a couple of songs, Bonebrake played marimbas while someone else drummed. (It gave me flashbacks of seeing him and Doe with The Flesh Eaters earlier this year.) Zoom even stepped to the front of the stage to play saxophone. It felt sort of self indulgent, but also loose and fun. For 55 or so minutes the near capacity crowd was eating out of their collective hand. I had recently read John Doe’s (sort of) autobiography Under the Big Black Sun, and had been looking forward to seeing X again. They are certainly the most in authentic band left from LA’s artsy first wave of punk, and still put on a good show.

I was also looking forward to seeing The Damned. I had seen them a couple of times in the ‘90s under less than ideal circumstances, but had heard great things about recent tours. It’s almost hard to believe that the first British punk band to release a single, put out an album, and tour the US is still kicking. I’m glad to report that they’re doing more than surviving, they’re actually thriving. Singer Dave Vanian is still the coolest vampire around, even if he must go through gallons of black hair dye. The other original member, Guitarist Captain Sensible, looks more his age but is no less spry.

The other three guys have been around for quite a while too. Keyboardist Monty Oxymoron is a spirited performer and a dead ringer for Spinal Tap ivory tickler “Caucasian” Jeffery Vanston. Bassist Paul Gray was in Eddie and the Hot Rods and did a short stint in The Damned in the early ‘80s. Even drummer Pinch has been in the band for 20 years. While this couldn’t exactly be called the classic lineup, it’s a damned good one. The Damned had been promising to play Machine Gun Etiquette in its entirety to celebrate that record’s 40th anniversary. (It’s probably my favorite Damned album, but Damned, Damned, Damned (1977) would be a close second. I guess it’s a win either way.) Starting with “Love Song”, they ran through it track by track.

As if to show that he wasn’t as serious as his dress would suggest, Vanain donned a bright red clown nose for “These Hands”. As you would expect, every song from the album drove the crowd wild. Things were punctuated by a rousing version “Smash It Up (Part 2)”. That was about the first 45 minutes of the show. Little did we know that they were just getting started. They then spent more than an hour playing songs from throughout their 40 plus year career. I must admit I didn’t know every song, but a personal highlight was “Wait for the Blackout” from the The Black Album (1980). They ended their main set with their best known songs “New Rose” and “Neat, Neat, Neat”.

Not one but two encores followed. By the time The Damned wrapped up their cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, they had been playing for nearly two hours. I don’t think I can do justice to just how good The Damned were. This was one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. I kind of feel sorry for the people who had to see them play in broad daylight standing in the giant, uncomfortable rocks at Camp Anarchy.