JOHN DOE and EXENE are forever linked to the nascent west coast punk scene of the late ’70s through the pioneering band X, but their mid-80s work as the side-project THE KNITTERS gave more than a strong hint about their love for the traditional song craft of legends like HANK WILLIAMS and WOODY GUTHRIE. This tour finds them digging even deeper in the vein, reducing the music to core elements of voice and acoustic guitar as just a duo (ok, electric was used for a couple of songs, but let’s not nitpick here). The ragged glory of their entwined vocals was on naked display here, not vying for room in the song over the crunch of DJ BONEBRAKE‘s pounding rhythm, or the white-hot rockabilly runs of BILLY ZOOM.
It was funny to hear John refer to X songs as covers, but after thinking about it longer it made sense, as even though those two were responsible for writing the overwhelming majority of songs, in the stripped down format of just the two of them the songs were starkly different. There was a self-proclaimed bluegrass version of “In This House That I Call Home” and a very lean “The New World” which felt less like an anthem as in its rockist mode, and more like quiet resignation to giving into the machine. Exene attempted to placate a fan’s shouted request by languidly singing the opening stanzas of “We’re Desperate” while John just shook his head and claimed he had no clue on how to play that song on guitar. Another outcome of a Zoom-less band meant that post-Zoom material was played, including the incredibly poignant “See How We Are,” with John prefacing the song by giving some background about it, writing it in Baltimore and noting the odd scent of grape-ish rat poison coming from the crumbling tenement buildings. Even in it’s original format it’s a quiet song, but regardless of the lack of sonic density and crash-bang energy found on plenty of their other material, it’s among the most powerful songs they’ve created.
Exene picked up a guitar for a few songs, something I’ve not seen her do before, and they played a newly-written song from her called “Lonesome War,” a winsome lament is also on the tour-only cd they were selling called Singing and Playing. John called it an EEP, extra extended play, noting that at generous inclusion of seven songs, it surpassed the normal EP guidelines. The evening closed out with DAVE ALVIN‘s “The Call Of The Wreckin’ Ball,” a down-home stomper that got the seated audience’s blood flowing.
DENNIS BRENNAN opened the show with just a guitar, a voice, and a sharp hat; he looked a bit like a mix between COSMO KRAMER and TOM WAITS. Fortunately, he sounded much closer to the latter, with other traces of classic song smiths like TOM PETTY or STEVE FORBERT. Unfortunately missed most of his set waiting for John and Exene to return from dinner and hand in the guest list, but as he’s a local I can definitely find him easy enough in the future. His songs were solid, certainly underscoring his status as a veteran songwriter and performer.