Seeing one of the most powerful bands on the planet usually requires visiting a major venue in a large city. But every now and then, you can catch such a band in an out of the way place at a small club on an under the radar tour. Such was the case on the last day of February when King’s X graced the Ramona Mainstage in a remote northeastern part of San Diego County.
The Texas power trio has been rocking the planet since their first album dropped in 1988, while 1989’s sophomore release Gretchen Goes to Nebraska still ranks as one of the most underappreciated classics in hard rock history. Few albums from the era still resonate with such a timeless sound here in the 21st century, a testament to the band’s uniquely progressive style.
It seemed that bassist Doug Pinnick, guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill were on a runaway train to the big time, beloved by a who’s who of musician peers in the hard rock community for their blend of prog-rock power, melodic hooks, virtuosos chops, mind-bending psychedelia and majestic three-part harmonies. Sales increased with 1990’s Faith Hope Love, with lead single “It’s Love” garnering airplay on both radio and MTV. King’s X opened for Living Colour when that band was at the peak of their multi-platinum popularity, with guitarist Vernon Reid declaring King’s X would soon be the biggest band in the world.
The trio’s incendiary live shows created a die-hard core fan base, with their musical power and Pinnick’s cathartic vocals capable of making fans feel like they’d had a borderline religious experience. Such is the power of great rock ‘n’ roll. Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore even offered that band’s open vocal slot to Pinnick at one point, but Pinnick turned him down saying he had his own thing going. The music business isn’t always fair though and not all who would seem destined for rock’s high priesthood are able to break through to the mainstream success they might seem to deserve.
That breakthrough never came for King’s X. But the trio kept on rocking through the years, with 15 albums and a slew of memorable tours. The band faced their greatest crisis in 2012, when Gaskill suffered a heart attack that nearly killed him. But the music gods weren’t ready to call the drummer up to the pearly gates yet and King’s X continues to rock on.
The Ramona Mainstage has been hosting a series of hard rock heroes from the late ’80s and early ’90s, so King’s X fit the bill. San Diego also has a shortage of suitable rock venues in the greater metro area, so it’s no surprise that neighboring towns are trying to fill the void. The former movie theater has great sound for the most part, although there are a few annoying dead spots. This could probably be remedied if management would take out some of the tables to enlarge the tiny dance floor, but the venue seems to be a work in progress.
A “Groove Machine” opener set an early tone, because that’s what this band is. Pinnick owns one of the richest bass tones in rock history, and the low-end punch from his semi-hollow bass resonated deeply here. The mesmerizing bass power continued on the syncopated dirge of “Pillow”, a deep cut from 1994’s Dogman LP. The band then cranked it up into full rock power mode for “The World Around Me”, the soaring opener from 1992’s eponymous fourth album.
“Jerry Gaskill on the drums, the man who came back to life… the man who died and came back…”, Pinnick said by way of introducing his dynamic drummer early on. Gaskill seemed no worse for wear and tear, whether it was laying down the heavy beat of “Dogman” or delivering a lighter touch on the majestic psychedelia of “Pleiades”. The latter classic from the Gretchen LP featured Tabor on vocals and lead guitar, conjuring a mystical vibe that has informed the band’s sound since the beginning.
The bulk of the repertoire comes from the first six albums, a body of work that few bands from the era can match. But Pinnick pulled a 21st century ace when he riffed on the funky intro to “Vegetable” from 2001’s Manic Moonlight. The extended intro led to one of the night’s best jams, with Tabor tearing up a melty solo over the deep groove. “Go Tell Somebody” from 2008’s XV was another hard-rocking highlight, with Pinnick singing out for fans to spread the word on this rock gospel.
The stage seemed like it might ignite during “Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something”, with the band reaching back to Gretchen again for a tightly arranged jam that had the crowd rocking out. Pinnick and Gaskill locked in on a superb groove, while Tabor burned up the fretboard. Tabor stole the show on “A Box”, a heartfelt tune from 1996’s Ear Candy where his melty solo on the ambient outro recalled vintage Jimi Hendrix.
The epic “We Were Born to Be Loved” from 1990’s Faith Hope Love closed the set in climactic fashion. The trio was at the peak of their powers on a tune highlighting all their multi-dimensional skills – tight riffs, an electrifying groove, soaring harmonies and an intense jam that Gaskill keeps restarting every time you think it’s going to end. Pinnick alluded to the church of rock during the encore’s “Over My Head”, a spirited fan-favorite for 25 years. The crowd clapped and sang along on the chorus with a gospel-like fervor, pastor Doug Pinnick presiding. The band threw on one more topper with “Mission”, pulling another deep cut off the shelf after Pinnick said it hadn’t been played in 15 years.
King’s X appears destined to remain an under-the-radar secret for their loyal fans, but no one’s complaining about still getting to see the band up close and personal. They band is even eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now. Their record sales won’t get them in, but ask any musician from the band’s era and they’ll likely testify to the worthiness of King’s X.