Rex Brown said in a recent Glide interview that, “You can take the boy away from the farm but the farm pretty much comes with you,” in regards to his music past. And that is very well true of John Doe when he played the Red Dragon Listening Room in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Saturday night (11/11/17). With only two Guild guitars, an amp from the 1950’s he’s had for over twenty years and a repertoire of punk and Americana songs, Doe didn’t go quietly into the night. At least, not all of the time he was on the stage.
Doe, a founder of the legendary Los Angeles trailblazing punk band X, which recently celebrated their 40th anniversary with a kick-ass tour throughout sweaty dives like they used to play in their early days, is no stranger to moving melodies into a more softer region of the musical scales. With The Knitters, three-quarters of X – Doe, Exene Cervenka and DJ Bonebrake – broke into the country & western/folk rock territory with the help of famed Blasters guitar player Dave Alvin. “I think it was unavoidable,” Doe told me earlier this year about heading into that direction. “The era that we grew up in, we couldn’t help but be exposed to rockabilly music and rock & roll music and country & western and things like that. But I give Billy Zoom [X guitar player] most of the credit for including rockabilly in punk rock music,” continued Doe. “I also think that people gravitate towards making sounds, making music that can be believable. I can sing maybe country style or alt country and it’s believable so that’s why I do it. It sounds right.”
Doe’s first solo album, Meet John Doe, came out in 1990 and further established him as a singer/songwriter with more traditional leanings. His latest album, 2016’s The Westerner, continues to give Doe that outlet of great songs with messages but not as loud and fast as X. But there were still a few people in the audience who weren’t sure exactly what they were going to get – the fire of X, the nobility of The Knitters or the Doe who mashes them all together on his solo work. Happily, he gave us a bit of everything.
If you haven’t been to a listening room before, it’s a place of respect, where artists can sing their songs without all the amps, distortion, screaming fans and cell phone recording distractions. It’s where the song comes to life. So Doe began on acoustic with “A Little More Time,” “Don’t Forget How Much I Love You,” X’s “Poor Girl,” and “The Losing Kind” from the movie Black Snake Moan. “Twin Brother” followed, a soft, sentimental beauty of a song from Doe’s 2005 album, Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet.
Following “Get On Board,” “a song about life … or death,” Doe asked if anyone had any requests, which prompted several people to call out songs from his past, and him electing to sing “Big Moon” from 2007’s A Year In The Wilderness, an album he pulled from several times during his set. Upon singing the opening line, “Won’t you come see me, where I’m stayin’ tonight,” he stopped and joked with Red Dragon Executive Director Chris Maxwell about what a nice hotel he had put him up in.
About eleven songs in, Doe switched to his electric guitar for four songs: Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You,” which he called one of the greatest records ever, “Drink Of Water,” “Never Enough” and “There’s A Hole,” a “love song that takes place in San Francisco.”
Doe was chatty with the crowd between songs, quipping about what inspired some songs and joking about others. He said “Drink Of Water” was about the drought in California and that Cervenka wrote most of the words to “New World.” He introduced “Knockin’ Around” from his debut solo album as being a song he liked but didn’t know who wrote it, eventually finding out that it was Baton Rouge songwriter Butch Hornsby (who passed away in 2004 from leukemia). “This is for him.”
Doe also paid tribute to his friend Harry Dean Stanton, who passed away in September, by recalling when he asked the actor if he wanted to sing some songs with him when they starred in “a shitty movie” together [although Doe didn’t say the name of the film, it was most likely 1987’s Slam Dance]. Stanton went to Doe’s to rehearse “for four hours on four songs.” But then afterwards he noticed Stanton started playing gigs. “I unleashed Harry Dean!” he joked. To “honor Harry Dean,” Doe performed the Mexican song “Cancion Mixteca,” which Stanton sang in the 1984 movie Paris, Texas. It was absolutely beautiful.
Opening for Doe was the New Orleans duo, The Round Pegs, who brought their unique funny bone singer/songwriter sense of humor with them, performing seven songs to the delight of the audience. With PH Fred on acoustic guitar and Beth Patterson on the bouzouki, a Greek stringed instrument that sounded quite lovely, they zingered through such songs as “Bacon,” “Pothole,” “Dyes” and “St. Theresa,” which featured a pretty intro by Patterson.
Although the whole evening was a set full of standouts and garnered Doe a standing ovation at the end, two more songs were above and beyond, the first being “Alone In Arizona.” Written by Cervenka for her 2011 solo album, The Excitement Of Maybe, it was a song that Doe loved so much that he recorded it for his The Westerner. The other song he introduced with, “Here’s one you thought I’d never play.” It ended up being the Allman Brothers “Midnight Rider,” which Doe turned into an eloquent tearjerker of emotion. After the show, Doe told me he had only played that song three or four times.
So if you’re debating about going to a John Doe solo show, not knowing how it would be, take our word for it – it’ll probably be the best concert you see all year.
SETLIST: A Little More Time, Don’t Forget How Much I Love You, Poor Girl, The Losing Kind, Twin Brother, Cancion Mixteca, Burning House Of Love, Get On Board, Big Moon, Knockin’ Around, A Case Of You, Drink Of Water, Never Enough, There’s A Hole, Midnight Rider, I Can’t Hold Myself In Line, My Darling Blue Skies, Alone In Arizona, New World, The Golden State. ENCORE: Big Rock Candy Mountain, See How We Are.