Knitters – Great American Music Hall (San Francisco, CA)
Recalling the duo appearances that gave birth to the Knitters over 20 years ago, Dave Alvin and John Doe walked onstage to begin the show alone. “Cryin’ But My Tears Are Far Away” and “Silver Wings” were given loving treatments, Doe picking the acoustic he’d later thrash, and Alvin spitting electric fills, not one of them identical to the songs’ recordings. Together they brought the second ballad down to a whisper, the airplane in question “slowly fading out of sight.”
The Knitters will be damned if they’ll fade slowly out of sight. Poor Little Critter On The Road was a fun record, but the whole Knitters concept of corn and composure worked best live. So they’re back with another fun record and gigs that make the music go bang.
When they first appeared on a Bay Area stage in 1985, the five musicians — all standing — appeared in a row across the lip of the stage. They used the same formation this night, with Jonny Ray Bartel slapping bass on the right and Alvin glowing in the shadows of his amp at house left. In between stood — or, rather, slumped — Exene Cervenka, as funny and chaotic as ever, and the nicest guy in rock ‘n’ roll, D.J. Bonebrake on snare, cymbal and washtub.
Bonebrake accelerated “Rock Island Line” to unknown velocities, and handed down a mean “Walkin’ Cane”. Of the new album’s songs, “Give Me My Flowers While I’m Living” was a multi-chorus rouser, and the singers’ serious delivery of “Long Chain On” stood out. The most welcome addition to their repertoire is Alvin’s “Dry River” — a perfect Knitters song, with verses sung by Doe that exude all the poignancy and quiet determination suggested in Alvin’s own earlier versions.
Exene acknowledged early on that she was “a little tipsy,” and aside from her asides, her presence continued to diminish. She did turn in a strong vocal on “Baby Out Of Jail”, wailing like the crone who dies in her sweet boy’s arms. But even with a finger in her ear, she often ended up singing in unison with John, those famous harmonies remaining locked up for another night.
Fortunately, no matter how fast or how loud or how reckless the band plays, Doe’s voice remains clear and strong, endless nuance and melodic invention streaming from the din. His fully mature style is capable of some truly exuberant heartbreak.
Alvin, meanwhile, had a hellhound on his trail, and it looked like his past. Red-faced and grimacing, he tried to outplay himself all night long. With his knees together, left boot tilted in, his intense focus on his leads was engrossing. He seemed to be after a narrative approach, wanting his solos to go somewhere with a beginning, middle and end. But several runs lost their way, ending in flustered clusters of notes; on a song from the new album, he resolved a particularly tense passage once Doe was well into the next verse.
He may have been responding to the packed house with a private challenge to make the songs new. Regardless, at set’s end and after three encores, Alvin had yet to acknowledge the crowd, while Doe stayed behind to wave, blow kisses and thank us profusely. With all the ease of a working band, the Knitters had proven that true punk attitude does not suffer “survivor” status. These folks have survived nothing — and everything.