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Monday, March 26, 2012

Mike Doughty @ Shank Hall

March 25, 2012

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Despite a nightmarish, toxic relationship with his band mates and his label, Warner Bros., Mike Doughty reached a lot of people as the main songwriter and creative center of the '90s alt-rock outfit Soul Coughing, scoring a couple of minor hits like "Super Bon Bon" and "Circles" as well as growing a sizable cult following. Not all of those fans stuck with Doughty when the band finally fell apart, he undertook the arduous task of getting sober for the first time in years and came out the other side with a new stripped-down folky sound, but if his solo career proved, for some listeners, too far removed from Soul Coughing's loopy, genre-bending pop experimentalism, just as many stayed loyal and, thanks in part to super-fan Dave Matthews, even more discovered his music for the first time.

To promote his new memoir, The Book of Drugs, Doughty's hit the road once again, this time with an intimate show that mixes solo acoustic performance, readings and crowd Q&A. Of course, the music is the main attraction here, and on that count Doughty delivered admirably, showing off how at home he is with the artist he is now, how he's become the singer and musician he's always wanted to be. For all the surface differences between Soul Coughing and his solo work, his songwriting, with its pop culture references and love of language that connotes rather than denotes, still shines through, especially on crowd favorites like "Busting Up a Starbucks" and "Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well."

The transitions from playing to talking, however, were pulled off a little less gracefully. Going in, I imagined something more freewheeling, that he'd pluck out a couple tunes, chat with the audience, or tell a few stories as the mood struck him, but while there was some overlap, usually when he was tuning his guitar, the readings and things mostly came abruptly and at seemingly arbitrary intervals. When he did "turn to the world of literature," as he humorously put it, some of the short anecdotes from the book proved funny and moving, but others seemed to lack context or a clear narrative (though he did also point out that the book's non-chronological nature makes it hard to reduce into bite-sized excerpts).

In fairness, it's got to be hard to go fluidly from one mode to the next, but it was the question-and-answer session that proved the most unnatural. After searching through the slips of pre-submitted queries and not finding any "gnarly" ones about his tortured time in Soul Coughing, he put them aside and solicited some directly from the avid fans in the audience. The answers were quite candid, but at some point they all inevitably returned to how it was a dark part of his life and he doesn't really like to talk about it. Yet when someone tried to lighten the mood by asking him about his favorite kinds of pie, he refused to change pace, reiterating that he was just taking "gnarly" questions—not the kind of fun conversation starters featured on his new live disc, The Question Jar Show—only to again protest that he doesn't like to drudge up the past. Sensing the logical disconnect, one brave soul asked why he would write a book about all the unpleasantness in his life if he only wants to look to the future, which Doughty parried by calling the guy "mean."

If the structure of the show and the restrictions on subject matter were a little awkward, though, Doughty never came off as anything less than likable and charming, able to laugh at the pain he's endured, if not quite able to let go of it. All the backstage gossip was revealing, but it paled in comparison to what he laid bare in song, when all the degradation and sadness morphed into something cathartic, occasionally even beautiful. The dirty details may make for a great tell-all book, but live, only the music seemed to matter.    
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