.John Doe Brings His Folk Trio to Moe’s

Punk legend finds more fun in the old world—as in the 1800s—on pandemic-inspired project

When Moe’s Alley reopened last year after shutting down in March of 2020 due to the pandemic, John Doe played the first show there, on an outdoor stage. Brian Ziel—who was debuting as Moe’s co-owner with Lisa Norelli at that show—says it meant a lot to him to have the punk legend play the club back to life. And the feeling was mutual.

“It meant a lot to me, too,” says Doe. Though he’s known as a core part of the Los Angeles music scene thanks to his career with the bands X and the Knitters (he’s even compiled two books about it, most recently last year’s More Fun in the New World), Doe is happy to see live music returning everywhere, and he says he especially respects the integrity Ziel and Norelli are bringing to the reopened club. When the original Moe’s Alley debuted in 1991 under owner Bill Welch, it was strictly a blues venue, but as the venue’s bookings got more eclectic over the years, Doe played there twice, with the Knitters and as a solo act.

“There’s so many ways that you can take something good, reopen it and fuck it up,” says Doe. “But as long as something has soul, and it has a thing, and people can appreciate and get that thing, that’s authentic and moving. It doesn’t matter what style of music it is—it’s real. And the original Moe’s Alley was all about authenticity.”

When he says it doesn’t matter what style of music it is, he’s not kidding, because when he returns to Moe’s on Friday, Oct. 14, Doe will be bringing a new project, the John Doe Folk Trio.

Now, fans of X, the Knitters, and Doe’s solo career will point out that all three of those projects have embraced folk music in some way, and that’s true. There’s a reason that the trio can easily mix songs from all of them into their live sets. But this is, like, folk folk. As in, the record that he put out with them this year, Fables in a Foreign Land, is set in the 1800s. I wouldn’t say that it sounds old-timey—it sounds like an especially acoustic John Doe record (“a little more shuffling, a little more friendly and cool, a little more sneaky, maybe,” says Doe)—but there is something interesting about how his writing has retreated over the decades from the modern, urban tales he wrote with Exene Cervenka in X to the rural, slightly nostalgic Americana of the Knitters to the almost timeless feel of many of his solo songs (“We are luck/We are fate/We are the feeling you get in the Golden State” is one example that jumps out) to, you know, the 19th century.

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“I guess I’ve been fascinated by the times before all this fucking technology, which I’m okay with, but definitely believe that we’ve lost more than we’ve gained,” he says.

Not to mention certain parallels between pre-tech times and spring of 2020, which is when Doe called Willie Nelson’s upright bassist Kevin Smith and Austin drummer Conrad Choucroun to see if they wanted to do some literal backyard jamming.

“We didn’t have any PA and we didn’t have a rehearsal space, we just did it on Kevin’s back porch,” says Doe. “So it seemed to fit the subject, and the style, and it was all just kind of live, and we didn’t have a deadline, I’d write a few songs, and as the song started developing, I thought, ‘You know what, I’ll just direct them away from modern devices and references.’ And that the kind of isolation that you might experience if you were driven from your home back in those days was similar, that being deprived of your friendships and family and things like that. So it all worked together.”

Doe had some co-writers on these songs, like Los Lobos’ Louie Perez, Texas music legend Terry Allen and even Garbage’s Shirley Manson—who, while X was opening on a tour with Garbage and Blondie, told Doe and Cervenka, “We should write a murder ballad.”

“If Shirley Manson says, ‘Let’s write a murder ballad,’ you don’t say no,” deadpans Doe. He and Cervenka would end up singing on Garbage’s version of the resulting song, “Destroying Angels.” It’s about a guy who kills his lover with poisonous mushrooms, and when I tell him the version on Fables in a Foreign Land sounds to me like an old-world reimaging of X’s gruesome true-crime tale “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” he laughs.

“That’s a new one,” he says. “I’ll have to remember that. It’s the prequel to ‘Johnny Hit and Run Paulene.’”

The John Doe Folk Trio performs at 9pm on Friday, Oct. 14 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way in Santa Cruz. $20/$25. moesalley.com.

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