John Doe Folk Trio at HopMonk Tavern, by Ria Burman
John Doe Folk Trio (photo: Ria Burman)

Words by Carolyn McCoy

It’s a beautiful day here in Marin County, California, the sun is shining and we are witnessing the heartbeat of the outdoor music season in full swing. Novato’s HopMonk Tavern sits among Big Box stores and a freeway, yet inside this establishment, there is nothing short of extraordinary magic. The venue’s “Cookout” music series put on by KC Turner Presents hosts some amazing outdoor music as children run around, folks young and old wipe BBQ sauce from their lips, and guests wait excitedly for the music to begin.

Enter John Nommensen Duchac, aka John Doe, aka “that guy from X,” who is a chameleon when it comes to music. Doe started his musical reality as a punk-rock legend even before he was a legend, and that has somehow led to him become the frontman of an acoustic folk trio. The journey from one extreme of a genre to another is too long of a story for me to tell you at the moment, so we will focus on the here and now, on Doe’s songwriting and the music he played on this particular sunny Sunday afternoon.

Even at 65 years old, Doe is still a striking figure — tall and lean, with a rugged face and graying hair. His star power can often be subdued, as he is also a troubadour-style songwriter. At HopMonk, he shared stories and banter as he performed with his acoustic folk trio that included drummer Stuart Johnson (who also played bass and drums for the opening duo Feisty Heart with guitarist Ruthie Garibay) and a standup bassist (David Carpenter).

Doe’s 90-minute set opened with the bluesy “Losing Kind” in which he played his gorgeous-sounding Wide Sky acoustic guitar, perfect for the blues. Digging into his back stock of music that included solo songs, as well as some from his time with the Knitters and with X, Doe rocked the crowd — acoustically speaking. “Burning House,” “Golden Gate,” and a deliciously rugged version of Joni Mitchell’s “Case Of You” satisfied Doe’s hungry fans. His political and environment side came through as well with “Drink Of Water”, “Never Enough” and “See How We Are.”

Before we all went back to our lives, Doe gave us the sonic gift of a two-song encore with “Hello Stranger” and “Wrecking Ball.” It was amazing to witness such a legend in such an intimate venue, up close and personal. Hearing his songs and his stories only brought us closer understanding how amazing this chameleon of a songwriter really is.