The Knitters may be billed as the alt-country side project of some well-known Southern California rockers, but Friday at the Birchmere this quintet roared and rolled through a set that offered much more than hipster takes on Appalachian standards. While the group, led by vocalists John Doe and Exene Cervenka from the band called X and guitarist Dave Alvin from the Blasters, did draw from that songbook, their sound also gleefully invoked the three-chord rock of both 1950s Memphis and 1980s Los Angeles. Although a cynic might dismiss covers of both Stanley Brothers and X songs as mere quaint nostalgia, the skills and charisma of the band members, plus the timelessness of the tunes, kept the evening vibrant.
Starting with old-timey material, Doe and Cervenka sang of heartbreak and drinking to forget, but they never wallowed in self-pity. Doe shone solo on the melancholy traditional "Little Margaret," while he and Cervenka delivered rough-edged yet impassioned harmonies on the X cut "The New World."
Sweating noticeably under the hot stage lights, the singers may have been the focus, but the band aided them immensely. Alvin used his Danelectro guitar to power upbeat numbers like a freight train, and to subtly interject twang on slower numbers. X drummer D.J. Bonebrake, standing up and using brushes and a snare, distinctively added rockabilly propulsion, as did acoustic bassist Jonny Ray Bartel.
Doe and Cervenka's occasional employment of faux-Southern patter about chickens and trucks was a tad cutesy, but when they went overboard, Alvin and company turned up the instrumental energy. By evening's end, with Doe flailing enthusiastically on an acoustic guitar, and Cervenka wailing high notes, the group even turned Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" into their own brand of ragged Americana.
-- Steve Kiviat