The Knitters: A Long-Term Project Worth the Wait

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Nobody had yet given "alt-country" music a name back in 1985, when three-fourths of the great Los Angeles punk band X hooked up with Dave Alvin of the Blasters for an album of folksy standards, rockabilly rave-ups and country ballads. The Knitters were only a side project for all involved -- the band took 20 years to release a follow-up album -- but to see them play the Birchmere on Tuesday night was to wish they'd given this extracurricular act more of their time over the years. The rowdy performance left little doubt as to the resiliency of the Knitters' sound or their chemistry as an ensemble. At 85 minutes, the show lasted about as long as the group's entire recorded catalogue, which is to say it was over way too soon.

Singer-acoustic guitarist John Doe and electric guitarist Alvin took the stage as a duo for a pair of sober covers, "A Good Imitation of the Blues" and "Silver Wings," then sent sobriety packing as singer Exene Cervenka, drummer DJ Bonebrake and upright bassist Jonny Ray Bartel assumed their positions, five abreast on the lip of the bandstand. Cervenka and Doe sang together as effortlessly as ever, while Alvin, looking the very picture of ageless cool with his laser-trimmed silver goatee and red handkerchief, let his fiery guitar licks grow increasingly boisterous as the night progressed. He playfully dropped in bits of other songs -- sometimes a little "Ziggy Stardust," sometimes a little "Also Sprach Zarathustra" -- wherever he felt like it, but rarely lost time with Bonebrake and Bartel's click-a-clack Tennessee Two-styled rhythm.

The set encompassed originals, traditionals ("Give Me Flowers While I'm Living," "Walking Cane") and covers that have long been in the Knitters' repertoire. For their closing "Born to Be Wild," they cut the adrenaline of Steppenwolf's version with whiskey. The resulting cocktail was like the band itself: slightly unstable, but appearing to retain its potency for decades.

-- Chris Klimek

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