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 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).
Doe’s official bio talks about living in “the rural black community of Simpsonville, Md,” graduating rom 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 well 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 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 album 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 setlist for John Doe Tuesday was:
- “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”