TVD Live: The John
Doe Folk Trio at Jammin’ Java, 6/14

If you didn’t know he was a central figure of the LA punk scene, you’d think John Doe might have leapfrogged straight from the dusty circuit of 1940s country-western. In the inaugural set of The John Doe Folk Trio at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, VA, the lanky entertainer sported a classic cowboy shirt, sang behind a vintage microphone, and strummed a retro-style wooden guitar, backed by a standup bass and a drummer.

His songs, too, told of a yearning of a bygone America, with job struggles, pain, and death. It was the first stop of the tour following the release of his latest effort Fables in a Foreign Land that was borne of the Covid shutdown that also was a throwback to the pandemic of a century ago.

And the songs of the new Fables in a Foreign Land are all consciously set in the 1890s, a time before planes, phones, video, and internet further complicated and blurred life or death issues. But the new set of tunes weren’t so different from the songs he’s put out on his half dozen earlier solo efforts, such that the opening “The Losing Kind” went easily into the new “Never Coming Back” or even “Burning House of Love,” one of four X songs thrown into the setlist.

Behind the electricity and drive, a lot of the fierce, thundering songs of that seminal punk band were super-charged folk songs that fit into the continuity of the American songbook. Some of his new material grew out of fondly remembered songs from his childhood, such that the sagebrush saga of “Sierra Peaks” became the strange milieu of “The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon.”

He also did a couple of direct covers, plying his surprisingly strong and supple voice to things as divergent as Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” to, most unexpectedly, “I Only Have Eyes for You,” a tune from the 30s best known from its recording by the Flamingos in 1958. So true to the tune was he that his bandmates added the “ShooBop ShooBop” from that old single.

Doe wrote and recorded the new album near his Austin home with bassist Kevin Smith, off the road from his usual touring with Willie Nelson because of the lockdowns, and drummer Conrad Choucroun. But as Smith was unable to join this tour (literally on the road again with Willie), Chris Crepps, who played in Dale Watson’s band, handles the standup bass. Together the trio is able to create a natural, spacious sound, where the bass and drums help expand the melody such that Doe doesn’t have to carry the burden with guitar.

In his songs, Doe excels in creating a bleak scenario where “Twin Brother,” about kids in poverty, was paired with the impending loneliness of the near-seasonal “4th of July.” His bilingual tale of a fast talking con man who calls himself “El Romance-o” was followed by a song he used to play with Harry Dean Stanton that came entirely in Spanish, “Canción mixteca,” which Stanton sang on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ classic 1984 movie Paris, Texas. Doe was a little hesitant at how he handled the language, but a barmaid assured him after the show that his Spanish was OK.

Doe went through the motions of asking for requests, even though his band had only rehearsed so many songs. One thing he knew he’d hear being requested, though, was all ready when it closed the main set: His enduring love song “Golden State,” the story of two people inexorably connected for good or ill: “You are something in my eye / And I am the shiver down your spine.”

He ended his encore with his own gospel-charged “Get on Board,” that provided some uplift as well as gassing himself up for what looks to be a pretty satisfying tour.

The Losing Kind
Never Coming Back
Burning House of Love
El Romance-o
Canción mixteca
Love Shack
Traveling So Hard
Poor Girl
Twin Brother
4th of July
The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon
I Only Have Eyes for You
Silver Wings
The New World
The Golden State

Destroying Angels
Get on Board

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