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John Doe w/ Robbie Fulks @ Shank Hall

July 17, 2010

Jul. 21, 2010
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Unlike many punk pioneers, former X frontman John Doe has managed to remain both alive and relevant. In fact, Doe’s output has increased as he has gotten older. The 21st century has seen him release six albums, the latest being 2009’s Country Club, which he recorded with the assistance of indie stalwarts The Sadies. Doe’s more recent albums have not matched the manic ferocity of X’s material, or the over-the-top rockabilly of The Knitters, Doe’s other primary musical vehicle. Instead, they showcase a man who seems intent on moving past the destructive behavior that once served as his creative muse.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Doe’s set Saturday night at Shank Hall, sponsored by WMSE’s Radio Summer Camp music festival—kudos for another great year, WMSEers—could best be described as “consistent.” Looking like a slightly disheveled English professor, Doe took to the stage armed only with an acoustic guitar (he would go electric later in the set) and an endearing aura of warmth and humility. It’s hard to dislike Doe, particularly when he was breathing new life into such tracks as “Fourth of July” (penned by his pal Dave Alvin) and Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings.” The intimacy that such songs created between performer and audience was further fostered by Doe’s between-song banter. Doe shared details on his life—stories about his strange neighbors, his need for a good eight hours of sleep and his thoughts on shopping at Costco—that cast Doe in a strangely domestic light. Doe is clearly not the same man who once sang about waking up and finding strange clumps of hair beside his bed, as he did in X’s “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene.”

And X was definitely the elephant in the room as Doe played more and more of his solo material. As a big X fan, I was disappointed by Doe’s decision to downplay this period of his artistic evolution, and not only because I selfishly wanted to hear songs like “The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss” one more time. Rather it was because I think such songs fit in nicely with Doe’s ever-growing love of country music. His newer material, while paying homage to the genre, struck me as overly sentimental and clichéd. In contrast, I have always thought of X’s original brand of punk as a sort of urban folk expression, the city equivalent of country music. The junkies, alcoholics and other outcasts that populated X’s seminal album Los Angeles would have felt right at home in the world that Haggard and others have described so well.

All of this is not to say that the spirit that once drove Doe was missing entirely; it showed up full force in a rousing rendition of The Knitters’ “The Call of the Wreckin’ Ball.” Doe was joined by show opener Robbie Fulks for this tale of barnyard destruction, and Fulks’ intricate guitar picking and well-placed vocal harmonies made the song a joy to hear. The song may not have the grittiness of Doe’s best material, but it does have a real sense of punk irreverence. And no one seemed happier to hear it than Doe himself.


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