X, Why and ZZ Top
Rationalizing sets from X, the Grateful Dead and a Texas trio
Not the first L.A. punk band, but certainly the best, X — like fellow Angelenos the Doors before them — meshed the power of poetry with rock's scrappy energy.
The sound that emerged — newly summarized on Elektra/Rhino's two-CD The Best: Make the Music Go Bang — remains fresh, unique and influential, even 20 years after it was recorded. The country-styled, near atonal harmonies of bassist John Doe with then-wife, Exene, collided with Billy Zoom's grinning yet tough rockabilly/surf/flash licks and D.J. Bonebrake's skidding drums — an approach that was edgy in spirit yet with a tender side. Early songs put the listener through a sonic roller coaster as X shifts tempos and dabbles in minor keys. These tunes often seem on the verge of skidding off the tracks, but they somehow maintain equilibrium.
No male/female duo has fronted a punk band as effectively as Doe and Exene. Their personal lyrics entwined with powerful, muscular music captures the freedom and limitations of relationships that simultaneously provoke a physical and psychological response.
A questionable shift to hard rock in the mid-'80s provided wider exposure. But when Zoom exited before 1987's under appreciated See How We Are, the blue sparks were all but squashed.
As the first comprehensive recap of the group's music (1997's Beyond and Back concentrated on live, demos and alternate mixes), this double set is all the curious will need to understand the jolting dynamics and searing intensity that made X so revolutionary and entertaining.
-- Hal Horowitz
Certainly the world doesn't need another Grateful Dead live album. But if there's going to be one, it might as well be from 1972, the year of the material on Rhino's Rockin' the Rhein with the Grateful Dead (Rheinhalle, Dusseldorf, West Germany, April 24, 1972). A tour already chronicled on Europe '72, Hundred Year Hall and Steppin' Out England '72 (the latter also released this year), the band's first major outing on the Continent was its last with original keyboardist/vocalist/blues lover Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. As such, it's considered a turning point in the Dead's career. Aside from the loss of a drummer, which thinned out the band's sound, the group was peaking — musically, anyway — on this jaunt.
Three CDs mostly presented in the show's running order, the listener can appreciate how effectively the Dead's internal rhythms worked. That's especially true on a mammoth 40-minute version of the Dead's shambling psychedelic classic "Dark Star," and a brisk 18-minute "Good Lovin'" with Pigpen commandeering as the band snakes away from the melody and into a distinctive space jam.
Once plowing through four hours of that, take a deep breath and break open Rhino's Jerry Garcia box, All Good Things: The Jerry Garcia Studio Sessions. Consisting of all five of Garcia's solo studio albums, plus a disc of rarities and a 128-page book of detailed notes, this is a daunting but often rewarding listen. Garcia succeeds in restraining the Dead's excessive improv for his solo work. The results are inconsistent, but there are enough highlights to justify the time. Only diehards need apply (and fork over the $75), but for them, the set is a long-awaited, lavishly presented and beautifully packaged treat.
-- Hal Horowitz
The Dead plays HiFi Buys Amphitheatre Thurs., Aug. 19, 6 p.m. $43.50-$53.50.
Because of a colorful, cartoonish persona and an early embrace of videos, Texas trio ZZ Top brought blues rock — or a glossy, bastardized form of it — to MTV, and thereby a crossover audience.
Initially embraced then written off by blues fans when the sequencers, drum machine and flashy videos hit in 1984, the band has doggedly earned back its roots following by being consistent proponents of a genre it never abandoned.
Rhino's double-CD Rancho Texicano: The Very Best of ZZ Top collects the highlights of the group's first 22 years. Whittled down from last Christmas' bloated four-disc box, it's a leaner chronology tracing the group from its early '70s boogie beginnings until the end of the MTV period in 1992. Through it all, main songwriter/guitarist Billy Gibbons maintained his self-mocking booze, blooze and broads lyrical approach, even as slick production and dance beats threatened to replace ZZ Top's cheap sunglasses with designer frames.
Unfortunately, the band's return to a rawer sound on four albums since 1994 isn't covered here. That — and 15 minutes wasted on extended, synth-heavy remixes — leaves this collection as a flawed but fascinating and generally enjoyable time capsule of the only blues-based act savvy enough to make an impact — however fleeting — on the MTV generation.
-- Hal Horowitz
ZZ Top plays Chastain Park Amphitheatre Mon., Aug. 16, 8 p.m. $35.50-$48.50.