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Working at the Pass: Jill Sobule & John Doe on a Midsummer’s Night

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Jill Sobule & John Doe
Alberta Rose Theater
Portland, OR
July 14, 2011

Completing the last leg of a tour that tracks back to their Record Store Day appearance at Euclid Records in St. Louis back in AprilJill Sobule and past collaborator John Doe (of L.A.’s formative punk band X and its rustic off-shoot The Knitters followed by his rough and tumble fin de siècle road band The John Doe Thing) stepped off an Amtrak Coast Liner train from their penultimate gig together in Seattle to find their way with guitars and banjo in hand through the disorienting sunshine of a very late-starting summer in the Pacific Northwest. North Portland’s resplendent purple Alberta Rose Theater had been the site of Sobule’s brief if surprisingly well-received musical theater collaboration with former Saturday Night Live Not Ready for Prime Time player, tv, and film character actress and, more recently, NPR and indie theater monologist Julia Sweeney in the Jill & Julia Show that generated raves in dreary March. Sobule and Doe a year earlier, way back on April 11, 2010, had recorded a flinty live in-studio record called A Day At The Pass (Pinko Records, 2011) limning the increasingly desperate zeitgeist with a marvelous band, including Don Was covering the basses, and produced by the Jill & Julia Show’s upright bassist and harmony singer Dave Way at his studio in Los Angeles (site of some memorable John Doe Thing sessions from the turn of the century).

Doe opened the duo show picking an acoustic 8-bar blues with the intriguing lines

I don’t know that I ever knew you
I don’t know that I ever knew you
But you can see right through me
I wish we weren’t the losing kind

Sobule picked some sly electric slide guitar prowling behind Doe. Each switched out their axes from acoustic to electric and vice versa as Sobule stepped up to play her “Trains,” a fanciful tale of mysterious sleeper car refugees on the lam from something out of an old Preston Sturges movie. Doe then slammed home on furiously strummed acoustic steel-string guitar nearly as compelling a punk version of his collaboration with Excene Cervenka on X’s second album Wild Gift, the cult classic “(I’m Livin’ With A) White Girl.” For all the receptivity to deep catalogue requests peppering the dynamic duo from an audience pretty evenly split in their familiarity with both songwriters’ repertoires, the moments that crackled with the electricity of spontaneous combustion were the songs performed from their joint project A Day At The Pass.

Doe shared some ambivalence about an uncharacteristically romantic cover; he attempted the Alex Chilton song “I’m In Love With A Girl,” which he claimed he was too insecure to try and sing earlier in the tour with Sobule since she and her attaché in the car they were touring in would just have a hoot harmonizing on their version “I’m In Love With A Squirrel.” That crack didn’t undermine the loveliness of Sobule’s harmony or confuse her update of her own 1995 pre-Metrosexual Revolution novelty single (with all the charm that Katy Perry’s later song by the same name lacked) “I Kissed A Girl.”

Sobule rolled with a called-out request to clear up the mysterious second line to the song that opens her new record with Doe as it nails our either unemployed or overworked and anxious times, “Under The Bridge.” Leaning into her mike in the direction of the curious questioner, she clearly annunciated her go-for-broke bouncy sing-along lede:

You got the message
Yeah, you’re closin’ shop
And in two weeks you’ll be out of a job
So take the pencils and the paper clips
’Cause that will be your only parting gifts

before a rocking Alberta Rose Theater joined in on the simpatico up-swell of a chorus:

Under the bridge
You’ll find us waiting
Under the bridge
We’ll all be there
Under the bridge
We’ll light the fire
Under the bridge
We’re all together
Let’s pool our money
Under the bridge we understand

winding the melody into an older more familiar refrain from Hoovervilles of our collective past:

Happy days are here again
The sky is bright & clear again
Let’s sing a song of cheer again
Under the bridge…

Doe shared some relief from his own current anxieties situated in a post recording industry world by noting that Eddie Vedder and Portland’s own former Sleater-Kinney Band co-founder Corin Tucker had saved his bacon covering his song “The Golden State” for the Neighbors soundtrack, while Pearl Jam had paid some of his bills with royalty checks performing his and Excene Cervenka’s X debut from the Reagan–Bush trickle down era “The New World (Don’t Forget the Motor City).” Again, Sobule was right there, along with most of the joyously feed-backing house on rollicking versions of both. Sobule and Doe returned to split insistent encores with the whimsically futuristic “Jet Pack” (again honoring a shout out request) and a Bakersfield Sound song that Doe cut in 2005 with The Sadies and his teen age daughter Veronica Jane singing harmony, “Mama Don’t.”

Alberta Rose Theater booker Adam East reunited with his longtime L.A., Kerrville, and Portland duet partner Kris Deelane (they were also bandmates in Sweetjuice) to open the long and lovely (if late in arriving) summer’s eve with a set of originals that hit like well broken-in pop and soul staples. Their pegging of the evening to a recent news item about Rodney King getting arrested again tripped their synapses back to where they were at the time of the South Central L.A. riots, unwittingly driving through the neighborhood on their way to see Lou Reed at the Greek Theater. This night at the Alberta Rose Theater in No Po’ featured nothing so volatile, and yet the material of both duos suggested that indeed something was happening here…even if what it is ain’t exactly clear.

Jill Sobule & John Doe
A Day At The Pass
[Pinko Records (2011)]

Recorded in a day at Los Angeles venue The Pass on April 11, 2010, Dave Way captured a crackling bright band sound that contrasts effectively with some very unsentimental lyrics (the exception being a freshly felt cover of the Addrisi songwriting Brothers’ “Never My Love” that The Association debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968), A Day At The Pass got released on Jill Sobule’s own Pinko Records in April 2011 with the help of a core group of fan-investors who’d also helped release her last solo album California Years. Again confirming the taste of former Atlantic and PolyGram music CEO Danny Goldberg, who late in the 1990’s decided to leave the big leagues of the entertainment industry to start his own independent label for artists he felt never fit into any mass-marketing cookie cutter (like Warren Zevon’s memorable and poignant final recordings), Sobule recorded the under-rated Underdog Victorious album for Goldberg’s short-lived Artemis label before bouncing between tv and film assignments and moving first to New York City from her Denver and Nashville bases and then, for most of the aughts, living in southern California and navigating her witty way through “The Industry.”

Sobule and Doe have a musical history going back to his early collaborations with Excene Cervenka in X and its rootsier spin-off group The Knitters as well as his own touring and recording band The John Doe Thing and former Blasters Dave Alvin’s Kings of California. Both Doe and Sobule tend to laser through all social pretenses in their songwriting and musical preferences, and the result is a batch of some things borrowed, new, & blue and all in tune with the times. Doe’s “Employee of the Month” and “Walking out the Door” are rockabilly soul mates of Sobule’s darkly written yet bouncily played opener “Under the Bridge,” a destination we all seem to know and fear from the 1 in 5 homeless people who happen to be service vets returned from wars and left to fall through the cracks. Sobule is focusing on a different, if fast-gaining subset of under-the-bridge dwellers, namely those who’ve just lost their jobs and/or homes with no gainful employment on the horizon. “Darling Underdog,” an Excene Cervenka and John Doe co-write earns its sentiment the old-fashioned way and in context.

The most striking track is Sobule’s “Shaky Hands,” sung within a wheeze of a prematurely aged wreck of a woman’s life. Said woman could be a stand-in for the once-cocky middle class that no longer has footing or the self-confidence to hang on to the precarious perch known as the anxious class for its aspirations upward and inexorable pull downward when the American Dream evaporates. Doe’s lead guitar grinds into the tremors Sobule traces with lyrical and vocal subtlety, and again the contrast is devastating. While the words convey a downer inevitability, Sobule’s voice keeps us hanging on every nuanced variation in chorus-verse-chorus as Doe’s electro-glide in blue bridge forces a confrontation with age and gravity that no medication can treat.

—Mitch Ritter (Beaverton, OR)

One comment on “Working at the Pass: Jill Sobule & John Doe on a Midsummer’s Night

  1. […] Jill Sobule goes to a scarier place than reality tv can accomodate (though rent and view any John Cassavettes-directed movie from “Opening Night” to Mikey & Nicky” – R.I.P. Peter Falk) … [Full Driftwood review.] […]

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