Mike Doughty – Live at Crescent Ballroom

Mike Doughty – Live at Crescent Ballroom

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Though I was anxious for the main event, I was also curious about Moon Hooch, the band Mike Doughty picked to open up for him. Less than three years ago Mike heard them busking in the New York subways and decided to take a chance on them.

At first I was dubious about the sound that a trio with two saxophones and a drummer would create. As it turns out, it’s a pretty rocking sound. The baritone and tenor sax players faced each other off and on through their set as if in conversation. Occasionally the baritone player would switch to a contrabassoon for a deeper sound. At one point, even the drummer pulled out a small sax, though he was much squeakier than his band mates.

The band was largely instrumental as it is difficult to play the sax and sing at the same time. There were times however where they both stopped playing and sang a repetitive ditty about dinosaurs or one of them would sing a line like “you don’t need anything but love” in a very house music style.  Starting with a high energy Prog Rock style they moved seamlessly across genres that included Jazz, Drum & Bass, Hip Hop, and House. I was particularly impressed with their ability to translate largely electronic styles into their clearly organic instruments.

Through the course of their 40 minute set, it was clear that they were able to work together to turn limited instrumentation into a full and broad sound, the kit drummer keeping the pace the whole way. Almost as a throw-away comment at the end of their set they mentioned that the drummer is a chef and cooks meals backstage and then blogs about it on their website. It seemed out of place but made me want to look them up online.

It was finally time for the main event, one which I was not ever expecting to see based on the bitterness that was carried on from the Soul Coughing days. Yet, when he stood up on stage and introduced himself as M. Doughty it was clear he was reclaiming what was really his to begin with. He was a man who was exorcizing his demons with a career full of confidence behind him.

Touring as a trio with stand-up bassist Catherine Popper and drummer Pete Wilhoit, the songs were less of a sonic splatter than the originals but the night held a number of surprises in that regard. With Mike on guitar the trio opened with “Circles,” especially appropriate with its opening line of, “When you were languishing in rooms I built to file you in,” a sentence echoing the fate of the songs themselves. The crowd went crazy at the end of the song, hungry for more.

As his accompaniment left the stage, Mike sang a solo acoustic version of “Janine” that sounded like it was taken directly from one of his post Soul Coughing singer-songwriter albums.  Soulful and full of emotion, it was one of the quieter moments of the evening. With a return to the stage, Catherine on a heavy bass line and Mike on samplers the trio played a searing version of “Super Bon Bon” complete with audience participation for the chorus.

In one of the most interesting live and reworked versions of the evening, Mike returned to one of the three guitars he used through the set for a medley of “So Far I Have Not Found the Science,” and “Moon Sammy.” The trio weaved seamlessly in and out of the two songs like they were always meant to be one piece. At one point there was even a frenetic bass and drum jam unique to the live performance.

For “St. Louise is Listening,” Catherine played a repetitive bass line on a Moog while Mike used a hand held device to elicit electronic effects that gave it more of the Soul Coughing splatter. This was maintained through the next several songs as he manipulated the sampler for “True Dreams of Wichita” and “Monster Man,” while Catherine went back and forth from the Moog to the bass and Pete kept the rhythm on his drum kit. Sampled barking dogs led directly into a sad but strong version of “How Many Cans.”

Picking up the acoustic again they played a bass heavy, minimalist drum version of “Soft Serve,” one of my all-time favorite Soul Coughing songs. Once again his accompaniment left Mike appropriately alone on stage. Placing a record on the turntable for rhythm and playing an acoustic version of “Mr. Bitterness,” all traces of real bitterness dissipated on the sound waves. He maintained the album accompaniment for a highly hip-hop version of “Zoom Zip” and a solidly spoken word version of “Screenwriters Blues.” His delivery of these songs emphasized the poetic essence of his lyrics.

As Mike messed with a box of knobs, Catherine came back on stage for a bowed bass version of “Lazybones.” Obnoxious people in front of the stage clapped loudly and off-beat, nearly ruining the stripped down version of another of my favorite songs.  By the time they stopped Pete had returned to the stage and with Mike on electric guitar and Catherine on the Moog-bass the trio played a solid version of “Unmarked Helicopters.”

Mike switched guitars again and Catherine returned to the stand-up for a slightly reworked version of “The Idiot Kings.” As Mike sang, “Everything is fine, fine, fine,” you could hear in his voice that he was finally letting go of those bad Soul Coughing memories. Jarred out of a mellow groove by crazy sampler noises they played “Bus to Beelzebub.” Of all of the evening’s tracks, this was the closest to the original version.

After the obligatory but very brief stage exit the trio returned for bass fueled versions of “Sugar Free Jazz” and “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” to close out the night.  Both close to the Soul Coughing versions but also obvious re-workings.

Clocking in at around one and a half hours and solidly covering all three Soul Coughing albums including almost all of my favorite songs, the show was a fan boy’s dream. Though I found myself comparing the songs to “the originals” throughout the night I was acutely aware of the history behind them. As the primary songwriter bullied into making his creations something other than what he heard in his head, M. Doughty finally made the songs into what they were intended to be and the music was all the better for it.


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