John Doe (Photo by Jim Herrington)
In its review of his new album, Fables in a Foreign Land, the site Allmusic praised John Doe for having one of the finest voices in roots music. John’s fine singing voice was on full display when he appeared on Tuesday night at Jammin’ Java with his folk trio, playing songs from that new album, along with old favorites from his solo catalog, hits from his band X, and an eclectic collection of covers that absolutely worked even if you might not have pictured a stalwart of the punk scene performing them.
At one point during the Jammin’ Java set on June 14, John said, “I never thought a Tuesday night in Vienna, Virginia, would be such a hoot.” But it really was: This was a special opportunity to see a living legend in an intimate setting.
John has a real claim to the title of renaissance man: In addition to his long career in music, he is a writer and a poet, and he has had an extensive acting career, appearing in films like Road House and TV series like Roswell. He edited the excellent essay collection Under the Big Black Sun, an oral history of L.A.’s punk scene. I mention only a few of his many projects and activities here, as there simply is not the space here to give anything like a comprehensive description of everything he’s done.
John’s latest album, Fables in a Foreign Land, came out earlier this month. And on Tuesday, the John Doe Folk Trio played many of its songs. The music consists of John on guitar, accompanied by bass and drums, and the occasional spice of accordion or fiddle. The songs are set as a story in the 1890s, but they speak to our modern condition and anxieties.
John enlisted cowriters for several of the cuts on the LP. Visual artist and songwriter Terry Allen helped out on “Never Coming Back.” Louie Perez of Los Lobos contributed Spanish lyrics to “El Romance-O.” John explained how it’s “about someone who maybe used to be a friend, and you’d hear them exaggerating. You knew it wasn’t true, because I was there, and it didn’t fucking happen.” Exene Cervenka, John Doe’s partner from X, and Shirley Mansion of Garbage helped out on “Destroying Angels.”
Watch the official music video for “Destroying Angels” by John Doe on YouTube:
Other songs on the new album were solely authored by Doe. “The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon,” which John described as “a campfire song,” was influenced by John’s listening to old cowboy songs from the frontier. “Travelin’ So Hard,” he explained, is about a man who’s going to treat himself when he gets to the next town. He also played the new tune “Sweetheart.”
John’s had an extensive solo career, and it was well represented here, with set opener “The Losing Kind,” “Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet,” and “My Darling/Blue Skies,” a song he recorded with Canadian alt-country group The Sadies. He dedicated the last song of the main set, “Golden State,” which was heavily requested by the audience, to “all you mothers.” His encore ended with “Get on Board.”
The set drew from eclectic sources. One number was a Mexican folk-song that John had learned from the actor and sometime singer, Harry Dean Stanton. John recalled how Stanton had made the musicians practice repeatedly for just four songs. The song was written in the early 20th century, at a time when people were moving from the country into the city, and it expresses their sadness over that change.
He also covered Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July,” a song he originally played with X. Other X songs included “Burning House of Love” and “Forever For You.” “Silver Wings” was a song played by the Knitters, what was essentially a country side-project of X. In an unexpected turn, John covered Pearl Jam’s “New World,” finishing it off with a coda using a line from the Beatles’ “Revolution.” I didn’t quite catch the name of the song, but one number was “a very cheery song about the destruction of the United States of America.”
The evening’s most unexpected, surprising move was a cover of the ’40s pop standard “I Only Have Eyes For You.” It’s not what someone would expect to hear one of the giants punk rock playing, but John has the vocal chops to do a great cover of this. His band did a terrific job supporting him on this, as they did throughout the evening. For just guitar, bass, and drums, the trio did a great job of making a really full, rich sound. When he was introducing this song, John talked about how important it is to be present, “because people are fucking checked out,” and he pointed to the third verse of this song as fine example of presence.
Particularly notable was the beautiful acoustic guitar played for part of the evening, switching between that and his electric. It was a beautiful dark wood model, very distinctive in both appearance and sound, enough so that I made a point of asking him about it after the show; it’s a Wide Sky guitar.
If you’re reading this and you’re on the path of John’s tour, I would really encourage you to take in this show, especially if you haven’t seen him. If you’re a music fan, John is a major figure, someone you really owe it to yourself to see, and you’ll enjoy seeing him, because he puts on a great show.