Subscribers to the mailing lists of Los Angeles venues The Hi Hat and The Satellite–both known for booking excellent emerging rock bands–received a somewhat cryptic email blast a few weeks about a new band called CRX. The email encouraged music aficionados to employ Googling skills, figure it out, and grab a ticket before it was too late.
CRX is the new side project of The Strokes’ guitarist Nick Valensi. Valensi is flanked by a stellar cadre of musicians forming a super group of sorts: Darian Zahedi on guitar, Jon Safley on bass (The Reflections), Richie Follin on keys and guitar (Guards and Willowz), and Ralph Alexander on drums (The Dose). Zahedi, Safley, and Follin all sing backing vocals as well. The band is making their entrance on the music scene with shows in surprisingly small venues: two Los Angeles gigs, two New York gigs, and a just-announced Chicago date in September. Additionally, CRX are booked for a handful of shows supporting Beck. The August 17th show at The Hi Hat in LA was the band’s world premiere.
The raucous Jacuzzi Boys trio “from Miami F-L-A” got our eardrums humming with a set of rowdy garage rock that had many connoisseurs in the audience singing along. Others formed a highly physical and burly, mainly male mosh pit that was not intended for beginners. A foamy ribbon of ale arced skyward, showering down upon crowd and stage as an aluminum beer can zipped by. Despite the mild ambient danger, Jacuzzi Boys delivered a fearless set that entertained and primed the sold out crowd of about 350 for the headliner.
CRX emerged to applause and screams from a crowd dotted with The Strokes concert tees. Clearly poised for action, Valensi’s sole preamble to the set was a friendly “Hey!” before the 5-piece careened into the 2:10 belter ‘On Edge’. ‘Give It Up’ was next up in the setlist. At nearly 4 minutes the song lingered longer than the opener to the delight of all. Darian Zahedi’s crunchy Gibson attacks paired with some Valensi Telecaster arpeggios and sundry melodic excursions had heads bopping and fists pumping in full approval.
Before the third song, Valensi ventured a bit more banter. “All right. Well, thanks for coming. How’d you guys find out about this?” Cheers and laughter echoed in reply and the band played on with a slower, heavier, bluesy number ‘Broken Bones’ contrasting a low-pitched riff with falsetto vocals in the verses to great effect, and expanding to gang vocals in the chorus.
The band was beginning to address the question everyone had been asking, “What do they sound like?” At this point in the set, the shorthand answer was a bit of The Strokes and a bit of Queens of the Stone Age. No surprise on The Strokes portion of that comparison. As for the QOTSA reference, it is perhaps better explained by the presence in the room of QOTSA frontman Josh Homme and bassist Michael Shuman, augmented by some post-show chatter about Homme being involved in the production of the band’s forthcoming album, rumored to be releasing this autumn.
By this time as well, the room had come to the collective realization that drummer Ralph Alexander is a phenomenal force of nature. His playing sounded as good as it was thrilling to watch, and vice versa. Drumming is by nature a kinetic endeavor, but Alexander’s physicality went above and beyond, summoning the laws of physics to use gravity and momentum to his skillful advantage. Yet the drumming never overpowered the other musicians in the mix, a perfect balancing act of brio and restraint.
The ensemble was clearly well-rehearsed and played together as a tight unit, as if they had a number of gigs behind them already. Valensi seemed moved by the crowd’s immediate appreciation. “Thank you very much. You’re very kind,” he said with genuine modesty. “You haven’t heard any of these songs before. It’s our first time,” he continued, as if he didn’t know quite what to expect that night himself, and was grateful–even relieved–for how people were connecting with the music.
‘One Track Mind’ took us to a more poppy and dancey place with quick staccato notes, snappy cymbals, and backing vocal “wooooo-oooooo’s.” Things became heavier once again with a hectic, inventive, and borderline dissonant yet aptly titled ‘Unnatural.’ ‘Slow Down’ exuded a laid back Tom Petty vibe with Valensi once again making ample use of his falsetto range.
A solid rocker with a catchy, melodic chorus followed with ‘Ways to Fake It’. After the song a member of the audience yelled out “That’s a good fuckin’ song!” which got a laugh as Valensi explained, “All right. Well…we’ve only got a couple more. I’d love to be here all night and play for you guys but, you know, this is our first show, and we’ve only got a handful of songs to play for you.” Everyone cheered wildly. “Anyway, this is called ‘Monkey Machine’,” said Nick as the band launched into a very fast punkish number with some intriguing tempo shifts and dynamics.
“All right, we’re gonna bounce,” announced Valensi before ‘Walls’ the final song and perhaps the most Strokes-esque of the set. “Thanks a lot. It really means a lot,” nodded Valensi before exiting the stage to enthusiastic cheers and chants of “CRX! CRX! CRX!
Not long after the show the whole band returned to the room to mingle with concertgoers. Nick Valensi posed patiently for photos with fan after fan, enduring hundreds of cellphone flashes in the dark venue and signing every single Strokes record that was proffered in his direction. As the last person stepped away, he started to cross the room and our paths intersected. I looked at him and he readied himself for another photo. “I just want is a high five,” I told him. “Well, here’s your high five then!” he said with a laugh and a gentle slap of the palm. “Thanks so much for coming!” It was a remarkable and humble display of gratitude: a clear acknowledgment that fans aren’t something an artist should ever take for granted.
Meanwhile, Ralph Alexander went through the familiar end-of-show motions of gigging drummers everywhere, carefully dismantling and stowing his kit piece by piece. That these tasks weren’t carried out by a roadie was somewhat surprising and further underscored that the band’s work ethic and DIY spirit have not been dimmed by the fame and achievement of their frontman. Overall, CRX left an impression of excellence on and offstage.
Until now, Nick Valensi had been the only member of The Strokes not to embark upon a side project. Fans of The Strokes may recall that in 2011 he confided to Pitchfork that he was “not a huge supporter of side/solo stuff. I’m of the opinion that you’re in a band and that’s what you do.” Of course we all know that only fools never change their minds. That’s a good thing, because CRX’s debut proves that Nick Valensi can moonlight with the best of them.
The lucky witnesses to CRX’s world premiere gig at The Hi Hat in Los Angeles left the room with a number of questions answered, their curiosity satisfied, and the conviction that we had just seen something special. But new questions emerged: When can we buy an album? What does CRX mean? When will the band tour again? CRX left us hungry for more, and the sooner our whetted appetites can be satisfied, the better.
The full photo gallery of CRX with support from Jacuzzi Boys can be viewed here at IN FOCUS on XS Noize.
Setlist for The Hi Hat, Los Angeles, August 17, 2016
Give It Up
One Track Mind
Ways to Fake It