Thursday, March 7, 2013


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.)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Jared and the Pits of Zaren

Last year, Jack created a character named Jarod for a story he started writing for fun over the summer called The Halfling. That story was never finished, but when an assignment came up for sixth grade Language Arts last semester, he changed the spelling of the name and took the character in a completely different direction. The assignment included the story being illustrated with photographs created by the student, so the kiddo used his love of Legos and pieces parts from various sets to stage six scenes from the new story he was telling.

Clearly influenced by the fantasy and medieval books – including Tolkien and all things dragon-related – he devours at ridiculous clip, here is the paper he presented for the class. He got an A.

Jared and the Pits of Zaren

Some see me as black-haired, gold-eyed, white-skinned, sword-wielding me, but others see me as a warrior and general. Who am I? I am Jared Diamondback, and this is one of my adventures.
The day was normal at first, but little did I know that was about to change. That day, I got up as normal and went to the training grounds within the castle’s walls.

 If you haven’t guessed, I am a knight and archer in King Lewis II’s army. I am also known as “Hawk.” At the training grounds, I overheard some other knights and a few archers speaking about a dragon called Zaren.
The first voice I heard I recognized as Mark, a strong, low-voiced knight.
“I hear he is 100 feet tall!” said Mark.
“Aye, I hear he has claws sharper than Gregor the blacksmith’s swords,” said one with a higher-pitched voice.
“Oh, yeah, I hear his scales are blacker than the nightshade mix of iron and steel, and his fire hotter than Hell!” said another.
That’s where I come in. “What in blazes are you talking about?” I said with a touch of suspicion.
“Well, if it isn’t Hawk,” said Mark, not at all surprised to see me.
I saw my friend Deric among them.
“Zaren is a myth,” I said. “If he was real, he would have raided the kingdom by now, don’t you think?” I asked.
“Maybe, but he is resourceful, after all. He is the King’s brother’s dragon,” said Mark.
The King’s brother has been dead for years, but now his dragon resurfaces? I wondered to myself.
“I thought Zaren in his rage upon the one who killed his master was overwhelmed in sheer number and was slain by his master’s killer!” I said with a touch of curiosity.
“Whatever, let’s go guys,” said Mark, and all but Deric left.
“Hey, Jared, do you believe them?” Deric, who has blond hair, blue eyes, a higher pitched voice than Mark or me, and is of average height, asked.
“No,” I said with a sneer. “What do they know? Some people are so stupid, and Mark is one of them!” I said, but I didn’t know how wrong I was!
The next three days went on as normal, seeing no sign of Mark or his gang until Friday, when the King wanted to see me. I admit it was a little nerve-wracking to be summoned by the King and his wizard Gorgavitch (but I didn’t let Mark, who was lurking in the shadows, see). Gorgavitch is an old wizard, portly, kind, grey-haired, nicely goateed, your standard castle wizard. The king is a very charitable man, who gives money and food to the poor. He also is a brave warrior and only gives quests to the best, of which I am one.

“Ahh, Jared, there you are!” exclaimed the King. “I have need of your services and talents for a quest to reclaim my enchanted chest plate,” said the King.
“I would be honored!” I said proudly. “When do I depart, my liege?” I asked with a cock of my head.
“You leave in two days’ time,” said the King. “You had best start packing your things. You have a long journey ahead.”
The next few days were filled with packing, and people wishing me good luck and saying farewell to me. Deric, who asked to come, was granted permission to join me on my journey and quest by the King.
One week later, we came upon the Desert of Endless Flame, so named because of the scorching fire and sunlight strewn about the desert. It was there we faced our first obstacle when we stumbled into a goblin camp. The one in charge was a fat, pampered, grotesque, and vile beast that we saw only from the back. At first, they were fighting over something very large and very fat. It turned out to be a boar.
“It’s ours! We’re the ones who slayed it,” said one group.
“No, it’s ours! Give it to us or we’ll slay the lot of you and take it for our own!” hollered another group.

They appear to be two separate groups. Hmmm…, I thought as they started to fight each other. After an hour or two, I snapped. I jumped headlong into the fray. The little goblins saw us first. They stopped fighting amongst their kin and turned all attention to us. One shot an arrow, and then all heck broke loose.
Deric and I slipped away unseen into the night as they slayed each other while we captured their leader to be our guide. The next three weeks were spent getting out of the desert. Then came the forest.
The dark, wet, old forest of Mirkwood is where we met the elves. The elves have long been at war with the goblins and orc.

Because of the goblin blood all over our bodies and the goblin leader with us, the elves mistook us for goblins. The elves started an ambush, which caught us off guard. First, they bombed us with arrows and, to make matters worse, the trees seemed to come alive and thrash at us. The elven warriors never stopped their barrage of arrows, even when we tried to negotiate that we were men, not goblins. The goblin leader was shot in the eye and died soon thereafter.
The world won’t miss him, I thought to myself.
Deric looked utterly terrified.
“Let’s try this one more time!” I yelled to Deric over the sound of arrows screaming through the air and elven warriors yelling to each other in elvish. As I yelled, I noticed the new types of arrows being fired.
“Explosives!” I yelled to Deric who was cowering in a cave nearby.
“What?” he yelled over the explosions.
“Explosives!” I yelled again. “This is going to be a long day,” I muttered. “Let’s try to reason with them,” I said.
In the middle of the battle, Deric tried to find a stream to clean off the grime of desert and the goblins.
“Jared,” I heard Deric call, “I think I found our stream!”
“Great,” I yelled back, “let’s clean off this filth and blood.”
We cleansed ourselves, and the elves realized we were humans and not goblin or any other wretched beast. To convey that they were sorry, they sent with us a companion named MapleWorth. They said he was their best warrior and archer.
“Welcome to our questing party!” I said.
“Yes, welcome,” added Deric.
“Let’s get going,” I said, suddenly serious.
“Why now?” asked MapleWorth.
“Because I’m sure the King is getting impatient, and we musn’t tarry any longer.”
“Ok, let’s get going then,” said MapleWorth.
After a week or two of traveling (it’s hard to keep track of time whilst questing), we ended up in the Pits of Zaren. I was curious as to how MapleWorth knew his way around so well. To my surprise, when I asked him about it he said, “My kin and I used to live in these lands until Zaren came one day, long, long ago and stole our land and burned our shops and houses. He is what changed our lives forever. He drove us out of our own lands.”
That was when we came upon Zaren, and I saw him for the first time in the flesh. He looked just as I had heard the knights and archers describe him so many months ago. He was truly a fearsome beast, and he still had the tattered remains of the King’s brother’s armor on his back.

“Who dares enter my realm?” the dragon asked, more perplexed than angry. “Hmmmm, an elf,” he said as he caught our scent, “and two men. One of your number is terrified out of his wits,” the dragon said, a little amused.
“I am Jared, this is Deric, and that is MapleWorth,” I yelled to the great beast of the pits.
“Well, Jared,” the dragon sneered, “if you think you can slay me, it will take more than a mere sword and bow.”
“I know that, for this is no mere blade. This is one of the Lost Blades of the Dragon Wars in which you supposedly died,” I grinned at Zaren. “This blade will be your demise, you foul, wretched beast. I will send you back to the black pits from whence you came!” I screamed at the beast. And I promptly cut off three of his big fat toes as MapleWorth and Deric notched their arrows and prepared to fire.
Zaren shot a bolt of flame and smoke into the air, and then it began.
“MapleWorth, focus your fire on his chest and face. Deric, you focus your flaming arrows at his feet,” I said in a grim but commanding voice.
“What about you?” they asked in unison.
“I will slay him myself, if you guys can keep him occupied,” I yelled back.
In the end, I slayed Zaren, but Deric got slashed up pretty badly. MapleWorth was surprisingly unscathed.

“Jared,” Deric mumbled from his hospital bed, safely back in the King’s realm.
“Yes, I’m here, my friend.” I said reassuringly.
“I… I can feel myself fading. I… think this is the end,” he mumbled.
“N…” I was cut off by the sound of the old heavy oak doors being pushed open. The King and MapleWorth walked in.
“It is not the end!” cried MapleWorth, as he tended to Deric’s wounds. “I can heal him.”
“Thank you for returning my chest plate. I shall make you a noble, and you will be welcome at the castle any time,” the King exclaimed with delight.
And that concludes this quest. Farewell, good reader, farewell.