Live: X Take It To The Limit

Reformed punk combo rock like they never broke up.

"It's just like taking a giant step into the past," said X bassist/singer John Doe.

If Doe were nervous about the band's first gig in more than 13 years with original guitarist Billy Zoom, he certainly didn't betray it while chilling out 20 minutes before he hit the stage. "It sounds exactly the same as when Billy was in the band," he added nonchalantly.

There was definitely a feeling of history, past and present, at the band's first "Re-Zooming" date (as Zoom had dubbed the mini reunion-tour). They Re-Zoomed for the first time Saturday night at San Francisco's 750-capacity Trocadero nightclub for two shows.

While the younger fans were eager to get their first glimpse of the legendary early '80s L.A. punk band that recorded such landmark tracks as "Los Angeles," "The Unheard Music," "Hungry Wolf" and "White Girl," older fans looked on lovingly as memories of past X shows, in clubs just like this, came flooding back.

Steve Duddy was one of the latter group. "I saw them so many times I can't remember, all over town," said the 48-year-old insurance agent just moments before X took the stage.

Duddy said Zoom's return wasn't the only factor that lured him out just one night after staying up late at a Sisters of Mercy show. "I think of X more as an idea, a concept, than a band," he said. "They never break up or get together, they just are."

And sure enough, once the band -- which also includes singer/songwriter Exene Cervenka and drummer DJ Bonebrake -- hit the stage, that concept was loud, fast and undeniable. Imagine stepping out of a car going 70 miles per hour, relatively unscathed, then stepping back in 13 years later.

From the first second of "Johny Hit and Run Paulene," the opening song, it was clear that X was in first-rate form. Zoom, his blond hair, if a little thinner, swept back in a cascading rockabilly doo, his silver guitar hung over his lean body as if it were a permanent part of his torso, was impossible to ignore. Dressed in a black turtleneck, blue jeans and black cowboy boots, the imposingly tall Zoom looked like he could have been Jerry Lee Lewis' born-again younger twin brother. He ripped off his signature punkabilly riffs as if he'd never stopped playing with X.

With spotlights illuminating Doe, Zoom and Cervenka exclusively at various points, it was hard to deny the group's powerful allure. Zoom set his stance early, left leg splayed out in front, right behind, as if bracing for a long ride. His dark eyes darted around the room as he mirrored Doe's elastic slide-bass groove on the sensual "Blue Spark."

Between the choppy punk of "The New World" and the group's signature, snarling speedcore version of their heroes the Doors' "Soul Kitchen," Zoom and Doe shared a sly smile.

Cervenka stood between Zoom and Doe at the lip of the stage, her arms crossed over her short, black cardigan sweater, her hair its usual tangle of black, blonde and every shade in-between .

The 23-song set highlighted all the "Ready, Steady, Go"-style punk-meets-rockabilly tracks fans had come to hear: the out-of-control "We're Desperate," "Motel Room In My Bed," the stop-and-go "White Girl" and "Hungry Wolf," a sludgy, chaotic "Nausea" and a set-closing "The World's a Mess: It's In My Kiss."

The quartet, anchored as much by Bonebrake's tribal drums and Doe's sliding bass as Zoom's intense guitar licks and Cervenka's cranky punk-matron dead-pan delivery, worked as a well-oiled whole.

It was the rarest of reunions. Doe had said it before the show, "this is really for the fans," but by the end of their hour-and-a-half set, you really believed what might have easily been just hype. Doe was drenched in sweat and smiling and Zoom slapped some high-fives with the people up front and kept that bemused grin plastered across his face as someone gingerly relieved him of the silver guitar.

This wasn't a cynical reunion for the cash (think Sex Pistols) or even for some pathetic grab at elusive glory (think Circle Jerks), this was the big beat, played as it was, as it should be and as all those people crushed up to the stage will remember it.

"This is definitely the last time," promised Doe before slipping on his bass.

And even though X broke up for the last time just two years ago, somehow, judging by the energy on stage, you had to believe that in spirit, at least, Doe wasn't just setting himself up for the next last time. [Mon., Feb. 9, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]