He must have had an epiphany. Maybe he’s in love. Whatever the case, something is different about Mike Doughty. He doesn’t seem afraid anymore. Obviously, he wasn’t afraid to leave his successful band Soul Coughing behind to do the solo thing, alone with just an electric guitar. These days, though, he’s not afraid of singing songs about love, nor of leading cheesy encore sing-a-longs. He no longer seems preoccupied with being cool, and he’s better for it.
Doughty’s show last Wednesday at 12th & Porter was an altruistic intimate performance that showcased his charm as well as his distinctively deep voice and penetrating lyrics. Any doubt fans might have had about Doughty without his band quickly disappeared, as the simplicity of his singing, the stripped-down backing and the focus on his lyrics mesmerized.
With Soul Coughing, Doughty delivered songs whose supple wordplay and rhythmic complexity sounded fresh and revealing after even a hundred listens. Behind the sarcastic conviction of his lyrics, however, he remained something of a mystery. Emotional nakedness was not his strong suit. That changed on his two solo EPs, Skittish and Rockity Roll, one of which found him covering Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” with unexpected sincerity.
For his solo show, Doughty weaned the full but not capacity crowd off his former band’s songs, doling out SC tunes like nuggets of nicotine gum among songs from his EPs. The Soul Coughing material could have been a disaster without the records’ intricate arrangements or full-band backing. Instead, Doughty handled even the crashing jazzy breaks of SC’s “True Dreams of Wichita” nimbly.
But Doughty’s new songs are apparently closest to his heart. Songs from the EPs such as “Shunned + Falsified” point to an emotional directness often lacking in his earlier work. Not only did he play these with more conviction and enthusiasm than the SC songs, he made them the center of much of his warmest interaction with the audience.
Along with his own songs, past and present, Doughty performed choice covers such as The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love.” The silly “Fire Truck”-a funny little ditty “written by a 4-year-old,” Doughty said, and performed in the same spirit-and a crowd sing-along of his “Janine” typified the playful nature of the evening. The only slight misstep in the set was “Circles,” one of Soul Coughing’s few moderate mainstream successes, which Doughty played as if it were a contractual obligation.
Otherwise, Doughty played the role of entertainer with more ease than one might have expected from his records. With teasing good humor, he chided audience members, asked for song requests he had no intention to play and rejected calls for obvious SC numbers with a quick groan of boredom. He let the audience believe they had control of the evening, up until some loud, obnoxious St. Patrick’s Day boozers drowned him out. At that point, after cutting his eyes in their direction several times, he stopped mid-song and asked the revelers, as politely as possible, to “shut the fuck up.”
After the show, he nonchalantly sat on the stage signing and selling copies of Rockity Roll and obliging admirers with a quick chat or pictureenough to reduce the most serious of fans to tongue-tied starry-eyed girls. With the Soul Coughing tunes, Mike Doughty reminded the audience why it was there in the first place. But clearly, his newer, more personal material is why we should keep paying attention.