Quick, name a band that has only recorded one album, but 15 years later has inspired a tribute album and is packing clubs with deliriously loyal fans. If you said The Knitters, you’re right. Buy yourself “a big-ol’ cheap bottle of wine,” in the words of the band’s classic ballad, “Someone Like You.”
What’s even more curious about this group than its continuing popularity is that it was originally a side project, done on a lark. In 1985, members of the Los Angeles art-punk band X joined with guitarist Dave Alvin of the roots-rock group The Blasters and bassist Johnny Ray Bartel to record an album of country songs. With the release of Poor Little Critter on the Road, they made it OK for a whole generation of punks to like country.
These weren’t The Eagles with their peaceful easy feeling, and it wasn’t Garth Brooks with his big hat and bland sincerity. This was country in the spirit of original outlaws and rebels like Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Rough, raw songs about drinking, loving, crying and praying.
Their current tour is the second reunion of sorts, since the members also played together briefly earlier this decade. It’s also a triumphant riding of the wave of interest generated by the release of Poor Little Knitter on the Road on the Bloodshot label.
A near-capacity crowd in the 600-seat Aladdin on a Friday night in December hung on every lyric and jest of Exene Cervenkova and John Doe, as The Knitters ran through every song from Critter, plus several countrified versions of X songs, and a few cover tunes thrown in for good measure.
Both singers were in fine form, in spite of the ongoing consumption of beer on the stage. Doe’s voice ranged from raucous growl to mellow purr, and Cervenkova hit every note, although both stumbled over the lyrics occasionally.
Doe, who plays bass with X, showed himself a more-than-capable rhythm guitarist behind the rockabilly and blues licks screaming from Alvin’s ancient white Stratocaster. D.J. Bonebrake’s brushed snare laid down a solid and steady beat, although Ray’s acoustic bass was mostly lost in the mix.
A scant week after anarchists rioted a couple of hours north in Seattle, this crowd roared its approval as Doe and Cervenkova stood cheek-to-cheek singing the anti-Reagan anthem “The New World” into one microphone. The song also elicited Alvin’s most scorching solo of the night, although he rolled out several other hot ones, especially for X’s other working-class anthem, “The Have-Nots.”
Later, Cervenkova specifically dedicated “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” to the Seattle anti-World Trade Organization demonstrators.
The show peaked with the performance of the gospel-tinged “Walking Cane,” which for the final verse they turned into a rockabilly rave-up as “Rocking Cane.”
The sweating rockers came back for two encores, which included “Love Shack,” “Rock Island Line,” “Tennessee Border,” and finished with a thrashabilly version of “Born to Be Wild” that had everybody in the house on their feet.
(Portland, Oregon on December 3, 1999)