Album Reviews

John Doe

The Westerner

Artist:     John Doe

Album:     The Westerner

Label:     Cool Rock Records/Thirty Tigers

Release Date:     04/29/2016


The urgent, imploring and passionate vocals of John Doe could always carry him through, even when the material was only just fair.  Here though, we have a collection of great songs that make this clearly one of the strongest albums of Doe’s career.  He shows no signs of slowing down at age 63 – those same gritty, almost feral vocals that powered X in the early eighties are still present, but he can master a ballad too. Doe calls this album his “psychedelic soul record from the Arizona desert.” The undercurrents of mortality and life’s desperate moments are inspired by his life-long friend, the late author Michael Blake, scholar and advocate for Native American rights, who wrote Dancing With Wolves.

Doe co-produced the album with Dave Way and Giant Sand’s Howie Gelb, whose influence is certainly evident in the western vibe and desert feel of the material.  The album is well balanced, with roaring rockers like the opening “Get On Board” seemingly a rousing indirect take-off of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “This Train,” and gutty singer/songwriter pieces with especially clever wordplay like “Sunlight,” “The Other Shoe” and “Sweet Reward” as well as others. Chan Marshall duets on “A Little Help,” while Debbie Harry joins for the rave-up “Go Baby Go.”  Cindy Wasserman contributes on others.  The ballad “Alone in Arizona” is as haunting and indelibly memorable tune about loss as you’ll ever hear. Few can sustain the power and hold the vocals as long as Doe. Even though he uses reverb in places, he doesn’t need it. On “Drink of Water” and the closer, “Rising Sun,” Doe belts it out amidst some psychedelic backing, bringing the latter to a mournful almost Doors -like ending. Doe brings his best writing to this project and finds that magically unique balance between brutal strength and elegant grace. His stories evoke the well-earned wisdom of a musician and actor who is able to describe life’s struggles as few can.

Doe is receiving high praise as he tours behind the record. You can catch him at City Winery in NYC on 6/15 and in Atlanta on 6/20. The tour concludes at the end of the month on the West Coast.

NOTE:  Doe has a book now too. Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk was published by Da Capo Press on May 1st.  Penguin Random House plans an audio book follow-up.

-Jim Hynes

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