Mike Doughty – [Album]

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

At any concert, a performer hopes for a bit of audience interaction while they play, but the downside to such an exchange is that, under just the wrong circumstances, the show could fall apart completely if the performer relinquishes too much control and allows the crowd to play too great a roll in the performance. That is exactly the variable which makes a show like those Mike Doughty did on his Question Jar Tour in 2009 so potentially harrowing; leaving a jar, a pencil and a stack of paper available and giving the audience an open forum through the stage may mean that what comes is a glowing, unrepeatable performance because the audience is willing to have fun and work with the band, or it might be a collossal flop if the opposite is true. Even though he knew the risks, Doughty crossed his fingers and did it anyway; and a sampling of the results are contained on this 2CD set.

From the moment “Looking At The World From The Bottom Of A Well” opens Disc One of The Question Jar Show, listeners won't be able to miss that there's energy and anticipation permeating the proceedings. You can't see it, but there's a bit of an edge in the singer's voice – he's excited and nervous, but he makes his acoustic guitar blast in the face of fear; the sound of that guitar seems almost bottomless in its depth but, even as Doughty hammers it as hard as he can, the tenuous edge at the top of the performance remains sharp. Part of that anxiety comes because of the haunting cello played by Andrew “Scrap” Livingston (the only accompaniment during the set that the singer doesn't provide himself) and part of it is just implied by listeners' own minds because those familiar with Doughty's history (if you don't know, read the singer's memoir, The Book Of Drugs for a general idea of just how unstable this performance may have been behind the scenes) know that just about anything could happen here. Images of the best and worst possible things that might happen when the Q&A starts will go dancing through listeners' heads as the album screeches into the second song, a jagged take on “Busting Up A Starbucks,” and then pauses to begin the Q&A.

A brief pause, and listeners will get the impression that all the air was sucked from the venue by those holding their breath. This could be ugly.

“I read on that 'octopuses' is now an acceptable plural of 'octopus' rather than 'octopi,'” reads Doughty from the jar. “I'm concerned about the decline of the English language, what do you plan to do to fix it?”

“I plan on going down to Merriam-Webster and opening up a can of whoop-ass.”

“Why a nectarine and not a tangelo?”

Here, the singer begins a rapid-fire blast of questions from the jar, “I think tangelos are a little jolly – don't you think? A little jolly for our purposes? 'Jolly' is the thing I've been saying instead of 'gay.' I went through this period where [everything] was gay, so I've been saying 'jolly.'”

“Have you ever re-read your twitter page and thought, 'What the fuck?'”

“Yes I have, believe me. Killing time on the internet – not so fun to read afterwards.”

And the clincher: “Would you rather trip an old lady or kick a puppy?”

“I'd rather get a puppy and an old lady, sir, and go stare at you with this look in my eye.”

Okay, so it's not going to be an agonizingly insightful show which sees Doughty being forced to dust off all the skeletons in his closet because his fans already know the stories and aren't interested in seeing them re-enacted on stage. That's reassuring – no one really wants to hear scream therapy committed to tape, these people paid to be entertained. It's going to be a fun show.

With the pressure off, it suddenly becomes much easier to enjoy The Question Jar Show. Doughty does cast some light on a few of the ghosts around him (check out lines like “You're like trying to sleep off a cocaine binge” from “I Keep On Rising Up”) but keeps them light and contained to the music rather than inadvertently letting the set turn into an ad hoc and impromptu Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous meeting. The questions are fluffy and often don't have much of anything to do with any of the songs in the set (obvious exception being, “Can you name twenty-seven Jennifers?” but the question and the song are on different discs), but they do offer some entertainment value beyond a very, very strong set which ranges from light (“I Wrote A Song About Your Car”), to touching as only Doughty can really do (“Madeline And Nine”) to just marvelously sublime (“Your Misfortune,” “27 Jennifers,” “Like A Luminous Girl”). At no point does the set fall into the temptation of trying to exhume the corpses of the singer's past (that doesn't mean it didn't happen on occasion during the tour, only that none of those moments made the album, if indeed they happened), for which credit should be given to the audience for deliberately keeping the show about getting the best entertainment out of the Q&A format rather than trying to ask any “hard questions” or questions designed to try and disarm the singer. That translates very well to this album and the atmosphere combined with the performances will definitely be something fans will want to hear whether they were able to make it to the show and want to relive it, or just want to see what they missed.



The Question Jar Show
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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