TVD Live: John Doe at Jammin Java, 2/21

PHOTO: JIM HERRINGTON | It’s a long road from the throbbing epicenter of Los Angeles punk origins to an acoustic Tuesday night gig at a suburban Northern Virginia strip mall, but John Doe has made that road work for him, turning his fame in the occasionally revived X to a solid solo career of dusty, windswept Americana.

Those songs are usually served up with a wallop and a twang with a band behind him, but he returned to Jammin Java in Vienna, VA carrying only a guitar or two. He’s a big enough personality to carry it off, bringing a passion and hard-won skill on the nylon strings to create a driving sound, even when he pulled up a few from the X songbook.

Playing solo gave him a certain versatility as well and once he opened the door to requests, he played some old songs he hadn’t done in some time—some of them perfect for the barroom setting, like the swaggering “Dyin’ to Get Home” from his first solo album, Meet John Doe. Asking for requests is a Pandora’s box—he may have strayed from any intent to feature songs from his latest collection, last year’s The Westerner, but being back in the Middle Atlantic put him in mind of the days the Illinois native spent in Baltimore, before he moved to Los Angeles and helped start the punk scene he writes of in Under the Black Sun (whose audio book version was up for a Grammy this month).

His official bio talks about living in “the rural black community of Simpsonville, MD,” graduating from Antioch College when it had an outpost in Charm City and working as “a roofer, aluminum siding mechanic, and ran a poetry reading series.” Doe must have also picked up on the bluegrass roots of the region, mentioning it a couple of times and pulling up, by request, his version of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” the Jimmie Driftwood oddity “He Had a Long Chain On” played with an urgency, and suggesting that the final song in the encore be picked up by bluegrass bands—the Knitters’ “The Call of the Wreckin’ Ball,” perhaps the only song around about poultry stomping.

His propulsive version of the old hobo classic “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was so convincing it suggested he might be doing the whole tour via jumping freight trains. The three X songs were well-chosen and were adapted smartly to a spirited solo approach, and “White Girl” is not a particularly easy song to sing. “Burning House of Love” still crackled and “The New World” was indeed what he called a song that never stops being relevant. (It’s the one with the line: “It was better before they voted for what’s-his-name, this was supposed to be the new world”). Before it ended, he fit in a line from the Beatles’ “Revolution.”

His world-weary songs from the desert from his last couple of albums fit his format. Surprisingly, the acoustic guitar gave him a better tone than when he strapped on an electric guitar, which by contrast sounded inordinately harsh, especially when he turned on the vibrato on “Rising Sun.” In affable between-song banter as he tuned, he expressed disappointment with his performance the night before in North Carolina, but seemed happier he was hitting his stride here. And so were his fans.

The Losing Kind
Don’t Forget How Much I Love You
Alone in Arizona
White Girl
Dyin’ to Get Home
The Meanest Man in the World
Silver Wings
He Had a Long Chain On
A Case of You
Rising Sun
Drink of Water
There’s a Hole
Twin Brother
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Little Tiger
A Little More Time
Burning House of Love
My Darling, Blue Skies
The New World
Golden State

Tragedy by Definition
The Call of the Wreckin’ Ball

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