Mike Doughty Band
17 June 2006: House of Blues, Cleveland, Ohio
The enthusiastic crowd that turned out for the Mike Doughty Band performance didn’t seem to need any converting, but I did. Although not previously a fan of Doughty’s solo recorded work, the band’s performance at the 2006 CMJ Rock Hall Music Fest seems to have done the trick for me. I was surprised and impressed with almost every tune, and the laid-back and playful attitude of the band carried off the stage and up to the rafters.
Some of the technical difficulties that plagued Kevin Devine’s opening act lingered when Doughty took the stage shortly after 9:30, but they were easily overcome by the performance itself. Opening with a rocking version of “Busting Up a Starbucks” and charging through nearly 20 songs in an hour and a half, Doughty and his band delivered a bluesy, jazzy, organic rock show.
Doughty’s drummer Pete McNeal is fond of the phrase “dialed in,” as in yelling “The band is dialed in tonight!” On this night, McNeal was dialed in to his drum solo following a killer one-two punch of “Madeline and Nine” and “American Car” off of Doughty’s then-most recent effort, Haughty Music. But between the two songs, McNeal held up an extra set of pants he had up on the riser for the crowd to see, and he and Doughty had an amusing exchange about McNeal being “dialed in to the pants tonight” as well. Although the good-natured approach of the band is elemental to the group, ultimately it is secondary to the music. This is obvious when watching Scrap Livingston’s upright bass playing -- especially on songs like the expressive “Madeline and Nine”, where Livingston’s love of the music is on full display.
Most of the full band’s set carried a strong bass line, sparse but heavy drums, and “the brave youngster” John Kirby’s Space Invaders-like keyboard work. But while elements of Doughty’s previous band were audible here, his own four-guitar effort was always at the forefront, providing a distinctly different sound from his seven years of work with Soul Coughing. This was especially apparent during the three-song solo mini-set in the middle of the show, where Doughty took center stage for exceptional renditions of “Shunned + Falsified” and “The Only Answer” from 2000’s Skittish. He followed these with the only song I really knew before the show, “I Hear the Bells”, which appears on the Veronica Mars soundtrack (and that I previously referred to as “tripe”). Doughty’s beat poetry approach to lyrics take on added weight in a live setting, accompanied by his steel guitar and the crowd singing along.
The rest of the band returned for the strongest collection of songs of the night, including the “Tremendous Brunettes”/”Unsingable Name”/”Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well” trifecta. “Unsingable Name” would have been the highlight of the show, but Doughty and the band pulled out a little bit of the unexpected: He threw a snippet of “It’s Raining Men” into the mix to keep a promise made to the crowd during an earlier request, then went into the first few lines of Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City”. But all of this was topped by an absolutely rocking version of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”! Doughty covered this song for his 2005 iTunes-only EP of the same name, but like the rest of Doughty’s work, the studio version has nothing on the live take. As I stood there during the entirely appropriate main set closer, amid the frenzied exuberance of the crowd spilling over the balcony, it dawned on me that nobody sits around and thinks, “Man, why hasn’t anyone covered ‘The Gambler’?” But, damned if hearing this version doesn’t make you think, “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?!”
The show could have ended there and I would have been perfectly happy, but the band came back for a two-song encore of Soul Coughing’s “St. Louise is Listening” (which Doughty also served up in solo form on The Gambler EP) and Doughty’s sweet, redeeming “Your Misfortune”. As a bonus, the encore included the night’s “Scrap Fact” – where Livingston came to center stage and opined a single-lined nugget of wisdom: “Yellow is the alleged color of insanity.”
Many of the songs throughout the set had multiple hard breaks – places where the music could stretch and breathe – and the crowd anticipation and excitement would build during each successive start-stop moment. I got caught up in that shared exhilaration. The band’s ability and Doughty’s personality came across brilliantly in the live setting, overcoming my reservations about the studio material, which often comes off a little too adult contemporary and safe, and let me enjoy the music and the evening as much as the already-converted in the crowd.
(An edited version of this piece was previously published by PopMatters.)