- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

"I think empathy is my goal, to give people a feeling that they're not alone," says John Doe from a Sacramento, Calif., gig. You can go alone (or even with someone) and catch him Monday at Iota in Arlington.
While his seminal L.A. punk band X still plays the oldies a few dates a year, Mr. Doe's fourth solo album certainly is punk, but it's not punk rock. "Dim Stars, Bright Sky" (MUSIC) might have been titled after the X song "We're Desperate."
His characters are all damaged and needy, in recognizable though exaggerated ways. "This Far" portrays a lovelorn man "down by the freeway /shooting at cars / there is no quiet, no you."
Mr. Doe is superb at painting pictures, so much so that despite his appropriately world-weary vocals, they frequently work better as poems than songs.
Perhaps the most striking images come from "Faraway (From The North County)," where "the sky's a dirty cloud" but the sun appears as "little window, yellow distance / must be warm in there."
Of his characters, he claims "they're all combinations and exaggerations. I think that's what makes good storytelling or writing." His subjects also tend to be "the same socioeconomic level mid to lower."
Mr. Doe probably met some of these characters while living in and near Baltimore in the early 1970s, writing poetry and hanging out with film director John Waters and his circle. He then moved to Simpsonville, an "amazing rural black neighborhood…that I'm sure has been swallowed up by Columbia."
Mr. Doe assembles a remarkable array of guests here. Jakob Dylan fares very well, but Aimee Mann's and Juliana Hatfield's distinctive voices are mixed far into the background and largely wasted. But longtime X friend and ex-GoGo Jane Wiedlin manages to poke through in "Forever For You."
Though he says the influence on "Backroom" is "more Neil Young," ironically the catchy jangling guitar and emotive crooning are in the style of Ms. Hatfield's Lemonhead pal Evan Dando.
"My inspirations for these recordings were '60s folk music" where they were "mixed with drums low," Mr. Doe says. In fact, the Iota show won't have any drums, just "piano, upright bass, acoustic guitar."
It will also have some X songs done folk style. "['Country at War] would be appropriate; however, we're doing "Forever For You" which is my protest song…it takes the form of two people obsessing over each other." Or, he suggests, "two governments."

"We're sort of the background music for a binge," laughs Pietasters singer Stephen Jackson from his home in Alexandria. The ska/soul veterans play the Black Cat on Sunday to benefit the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Longtime bass player Todd Eckhardt died of a heart infection in November 2001, and his parents recently set up a scholarship in his name through the school's Ellington Fund.
"He was really cynical," says Mr. Jackson, "but then…he would go over to people's houses and show them how to play guitar." In addition, "he wrote a lot of our songs and was a pivotal member of the band."
Oddly, the Pietasters' 2002 effort, "Turbo" (on the Fueled By Ramen label), has little of their trademark ska raucousness, and more of the band's other influences, like the Stax soul and garage pop of the late 1960s. "Told You The First Time" isn't really ska, just some James Brown-style horns.
Closing the album is "How We Were Before," a Zombies cover that seems made for slow dancing. The most impressive track is "Step Right Up," an instrumental jazz number in which everyone gets a solo.
"That's the kind of song you throw right in the middle of the set…and everybody can get a drink and catch their breath," Mr. Jackson says.
"Drunken Master" is a hilarious Jamaican toast, with an allusion to a local tae kwon do master in the line "just like Jhoon Rhee, nobody bothers me." "That song, especially, we like a lot and we play it [live]," Mr. Jackson says. Guest vocalist Selah was perfect because "he's a kung fu teacher; that's his real job."
Other live standards include the Outsiders' garage classic "Time Won't Let Me." The crowd-pleaser "Maggie Mae" is a Pietasters original that sounds like a revved-up Irish drinking song and borrows a chorus riff from the "Guns of Navarone" theme.
The band's most popular, and most infamous, song is the tongue-in-cheek "Drinking and Driving." "We still play that," says Mr. Jackson. "People get kind of angry with us if we don't."

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