‘Busting up a Starbucks’ on the way to a Mike Doughty show is something every fan should do at least once. Fortunately, there is a Starbucks just one street away from the Iron Horse in Northampton, where Doughty played The Question Jar Show on Thursday, November 12. Doughty, former front-man of the 90s alternative band Soul Coughing, played with fellow musician Andrew “Scrap” Livingston to a full house on Thursday night.
There’s something completely real and unpretentious about The Question Jar Show. Watching Doughty and his friend Andrew “Scrap” Livingston onstage was like watching the guys from your favorite high school garage band – 30 years and seven albums later. There was no opening band, nor any big introduction. Doughty walked onstage, said hello and began playing “Tremendous Brunettes” (a song which originally featured Dave Matthews, by the way).
The show focused on acoustic songs from Doughty’s new album, “Sad Man Happy Man,” and stripped down versions of songs from his solo albums “Haughty Melodic” and “Golden Delicious.” There were also a few songs from Soul Coughing. Accompanied by Doughty on acoustic guitar and “Scrap” on cello and electric guitar, the songs felt very raw and highlighted the weird stream-of-consciousness poetry that is Doughty’s music.
What’s great about Doughty is that he doesn’t seem to take his fandom, or himself, too seriously. When asked by an audience member whether he would play at a birthday or bar mitzah if they paid him, Doughty replied, “Yeah! What else am I gonna do, sit at home and watch TV? I play for my friends all the time and they don’t give me shit.”
The Question Jar Show gives Doughty a chance to showcase the offbeat humor and verbal wit that characterizes his music. At the beginning of each show, audience members are asked to write questions on slips of paper and put them into a big glass jar on the stage. At intervals during the show, Doughty and Scrap pull questions from the jar and use them as prompts for improvised stage banter. Questions ranged from “first kiss” (Doughty: “it happened”) to what is the average person’s nipple size.
“A nickel,” replied Doughty, laughing. “Men’s nipples, I’m thinking. Why am I thinking about men’s nipples?”
The Question Jar Show largely featured songs from “Sad Man Happy Man.” Released on Oct. 6 of this year, the album represents a return to the acoustic arrangements exhibited in Doughty’s early work with Soul Coughing. Songs like “Lorna Zauberberg” and “(I keep on) Rising Up” were written for small clubs like the Iron Horse, and the crowd appropriately responded, with one guy shouting out in reference to the album – “we’re all buying to the new one!”
“Excellent! You speak for the people,” said Doughty.
The Question Show was also a chance to hear some of Doughty’s more commercial songs in their acoustic forms. Stripped of the heavy instrumentation and experimental voice layering, songs like “I Hear the Bells” and “Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well” felt very raw and poetic, like spoken-word set to jazzy rock. It was easy to picture what Doughty, a former poetry major at New York’s New School, must have looked like in his early days playing college music halls with a young Ani DiFranco.
Both “I Hear the Bells” and “Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well” have been featured on major American television shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Bones” and “Veronica Mars.”
Some of the best received songs of the night were from the 1996 album “El Oso,” Doughty’s last album with Soul Coughing. “Soft Serve” and “Circles” were beautifully performed to the delight of the slightly older Northampton crowd.
The only downside to the acoustic set was that the songs got a little repetitive as the night went on. Most Doughty songs seem to start with the same three guitar chords, something that seems masked on his albums. What didn’t get old was Doughty’s ironic self-awareness, which offset his music perfectly. Toward the end of the show Doughty turned to the audience and announced, “We are about to play the fake last song. We will then pause, and turn in our chairs so our backs are facing the audience. You can applaud or not applaud. Either way, a minute later we’ll turn back around with surprised looks on our faces and play two more songs.”
The audience laughed, but when it came time for the real last song, everyone in the crowd was hoping it was another fake.
Rachel Dougherty can be reached at [email protected]