By Polly Gone
Throughout my life, I’ve heard the music of X played at my house, but when I started really divulging in their music in high school, and later when we would see X live together, my mom would tell me about all the times that she would see John Doe’s acoustic shows at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Los Angeles. She would go by herself and watch him play acoustic X songs, songs by the Knitters—his country band with members of X and Dave Alvin—folk songs he wrote, and a plethora of other traditional folk and country. She described these as some of the most amazing shows that she has ever seen, so I was ecstatic when I heard over the summer that he was playing Moe’s Alley in October.
Just as my mother would, I went to Moe’s by myself. This was the first time I had been to this venue in Santa Cruz and as a person who relishes a tiny venue, I was ecstatic. The place was filed with people who adored X and John Doe. Standing right in the front along with me, a woman next to me was so excited saying “Can you believe this, John Doe is right in front of us, playing for us” which is a statement that completely captures how his intimate performance felt. Laying at the front of the stage were beautiful orange marigolds and on the stage was a glowing candle sitting on the amp, two of Doe’s guitars and in the middle a sign that read “Doe’s Alley.”
The John Doe Folk Trio consists of John Doe on guitar, David Carpenter on the upright bass, and Bryan Head on drums. He and his band came on to the stage, and put the setlist down in a place I could easily see—and couldn’t help but take a peek at—filled with both songs I knew and love and ones I didn’t. Then, standing directly in front of me, he and his band started playing. Immediately I was blown away—his solo recordings do not do justice both his incredible voice and guitar playing. He opened with a song off of his new album Fables In a Foreign Land, then followed with “Burning House of Love”—a song of of X’s Ain’t Love Grand, but more frequently heard in its acoustic-folk form from The Knitters’ second album. His band supported him simply and wonderfully, with just a stand-up bass and a drum kit with Carpenter adding subtle harmonies do John Doe’s voice.
He played a couple of sad songs from his other solo albums, and then said,“Okay, one more sad song, but I think you guys will like this one,” and proceeded to play the intro to one of my favorite songs (not on the set list) that The Knitters covered on their first album—“Silver Wings.” I could feel my eyes starting to water as he played one of the most beautiful performances I have ever witnessed.
He continued to play more songs off of his new album, which I must emphasize much more emotional and personal live than they are on the recordings. He played a version of X’s “I Have Nots” honoring all of the local bars that are still around. We heard his song “Get on Board” which was groovy and bluesy and the traditional folk song “Canción Mixteca” which exemplified how beautiful Doe’s voice is. He played two songs off the fourth X album, More Fun In the New World—“Poor Girl” and “The New World” which breathe new life in their acoustic forms. “Poor Girl” was stunningly sad, and the guitar along with his voice is something I will never be able to forget. Before playing “The New World” he urged the audience to vote in the upcoming election and encouraged everyone we knew to do the same. Doe changed the lyric from “president” to “governor” and at the end of the song they seamlessly played a snippet of The Beatles’ “Revolution” which was wonderfully unexpected. He played his sweet love song “The Golden State,” him and his band briefly left the stage, and then returned for an encore. At the true end of the performance, he thanked the audience, blew out the candle, and walked away.
John Doe is extraordinarily soulful in his songwriting and performance—even someone who had no idea who he was would have been moved by him. This was one of the most personal, stunning shows I have ever been to and anyone with the opportunity to see one of his folk shows should absolutely go. The only thing that would have made it better is if my mom got to be there, singing along with me.
By Polly Gone