glints in the night, commas and ampersands;
So I’m standing ten feet from Mike Doughty, an artist I have loved since the Poet introduced us the best (and worst) part of a decade ago, and what I can’t stop staring at is the stickers on his guitar. One says “YES”, and one says “NO” – perhaps a reference, inadvertent or otherwise, to his album Yes & Also Yes which was released in the UK earlier this year. Doughty is seated on a wooden chair so it’s only gradually I realise that the stickers are holographic and change message depending on where the light catches them. I keep thinking I’m seeing things, like a flash of subliminal advertising, until one of those moments where he wrestles with the guitar a little more violently than usual.
No matter how frequently I moan about the unkempt state of my inbox, and the kitchen, there are occasional perks to this unpaid labour of love. Tonight, for example, I’ll be at the inaugural Scottish Album of the Year Award ceremony at Glasgow Film City (don’t look so impressed – it’s on Govan Road) – I have my music-note patterned tights on in celebration. And last night I got invited to see Mike Doughty open for music legend Suzanne Vega, which was a Really Fucking Big Deal for me if not for anybody else in the audience.
I don’t think it’s snobbery or anything to admit that seeing an artist you’ve loved for the best part of a decade open for somebody as huge as Vega isn’t exactly the ideal. I used to think the Oran Mor was the worst venue in Glasgow because of the way it amplifies the sound of people talking at the bar, but following a couple of really good gigs in the place (a near-reverential acoustic James Yorkston show a couple of weeks ago being an obvious example) I’ve figured out that it isn’t really anything to do with the venue. No, I think it’s because the sort of people who go to see Suzanne Vega, or Amy Winehouse (to pick another Oran Mor show of days gone by I could barely hear over the din of middle-class wine drinkers) are just really fucking rude. I was tempted to stay behind and gab my way through their car commercial music after Doughty’s half-hour set, but since I was exhausted and would have been talking to myself – and also have, I don’t know, a basic respect for both performers and audiences – I decided against it.
ANYWAY. As the former frontman of a cult 1990s alternative rock band you’re unlikely to hear him mention anymore Doughty’s probably played to tougher audiences and besides, you shouldn’t really let that one-man-and-acoustic-guitar shtick fool you. The rabble only rises in the gaps between the songs that he beats out with an intensity that explains why there is a packet of new guitar strings and an extra headscarf on the chair next to him. In the end we make it til the last number (“Looking At the World From The Bottom of a Well”) before the inevitable occurs, and by that stage he might as well just power through the song’s weird-singing-that-sounds-more-like-talking on five strings. It’s really only the bass that is needed.
I suppose there are two ways to tackle the support slot: do you play all the new stuff, in the hopes that a few stragglers might pick up your latest release, or do you pull together a little best-of and try to win them over that way? Any concern that Doughty would attempt the former (I’ve been happy enough to promote his recent albums but come on, we all know that’s not really where my heart lies) proved unfounded when he opened with his beautiful Jeff Buckley tribute “Grey Ghost”. Doughty didn’t know the singer well – in fact he pretty much covers it in a paragraph in his excellent memoir The Book of Drugs – and the song mythologises, with its repeated “don’t-fall-through-the-stars-don’t-fall-through-them” refrain that sounds for all the world like the Wolf River‘s own treacherous waters.
Saying that, when the new songs do make an appearance they benefit from the stripped-down setting – “Na Na Nothing”, from the new release, having a bleakness and a violence to it you’re unlikely to hear on record. In the live setting Doughty is the quintessential improviser, muttering swearwords unbecoming to the venue under his breath as the staccato beats of classic songs like “Sunken-Eyed Girl” collapse in on themselves like a whirlpool.
Doughty’s opening another couple of shows for Suzanne Vega, if you’ve got twenty quid for a ticket, or for the budget experience you could pick up new live album The Question Jar Show which captures the bizarre questions written by fans drawn out of a jar on stage during Doughty’s own shows. Tonight’s inaugural SAY Award Ceremony will be livestreaming on Inner Ear, and The Pop Cop’s live blog is sure to be entertaining.