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Published: 2012/02/01
by Brian Robbins

Mike Doughty
The Question Jar Show

Snack Bar/Megaforce

What you have here is a 22-song live album compiled from singer/guitarist Mike Doughty’s 2009 tour dubbed The Question Jar Show. At each performance, audience members were encouraged to jot down questions for Doughty on pieces of paper and place them in a big jar that sat on the edge of the stage. Thus the name of the tour, the album, and the reason for the occasional break between songs for Doughty to answer a few (usually) weird-ass questions. Pop these two discs in and you are there, folks – front-row center, courtesy of a brilliant job of recording by Chuck Radue and production work by Andy Adelewitz.

The 2009 campaign was a two-man tour featuring Doughty and his extremely talented sidekick Andrew “Scrap” Livingston. What Doughty is to the guitar, Livingston is to the cello: rhythmical and inventive; imaginative and dynamic. The two of them think outside the box on their respective instruments, making you swear at times that there’s at least a percussionist sitting in with them, if not a few more sets of hands on top of that.

The album is front-loaded with a few Doughty “hits” – and to good effect. “Looking At The World From The Bottom Of A Well” establishes right off the bat that the two of them can deliver the goods: Doughty’s little opening figure on his six-string is like a gentle warning, backed by Livingston’s slightly-ominous draws with his bow. They pause; a breath; and then wham! – Doughty digs in hard to the tune’s rhythm while Livingston hauls low-end center-of-the-earth tones out of his cello and they’re off: “That Cuban girl …”

Doughty’s original recordings of songs such as “Busting Up A Starbucks” and “(You Should Be) Doubly Gratified” certainly benefited from a studio setting, but here he and Livingston manage to fill your head with more layers of sound than four hands should be able to deliver on a live stage with no looping or special effects. Doughty is not a million-notes-a-minute picker; rather, he works the emotions of his well-crafted lyrics into his music, using combinations of palm muting, arpeggios, bass-string runs, and all-out Pete Townsend-style chord flourishes to paint the sonic backdrops of his songs. And Livingston is right there with him, by turn funky/wistful/psychedelic/dangerous – doing the kind of shit that makes folks say, “That’s a cello ?”

Now and then, Livingston takes to an electric guitar to add accents and punctuation to Doughty’s words and rhythms, approaching it with the same taste and grace that he does the cello. Sometimes his guitar lines are little Duane Eddy stringed step stools between lines and verses; other times they’re the scenery and the character actors in the vignettes of Doughty’s songs. Catch the “Psycho Killer”-style stalk on “Down On The River By The Sugar Plant”; his smiling-yet-determined churn up the neck during “(I Keep On) Rising Up; and his chime > chaos shapeshift on “I Hear The Bells”.

And then there are the Question Jar interludes, with the questions drawn and deadpan-delivered by Livingston (“Did you ever have that ‘not-so-fresh’ feeling?”) and answered head-on with typical Doughty irreverence and word diddling. (“I often have that ‘not-so-fresh’ feeling, but I mean ‘fresh’ in the Run-D.M.C. sense: ‘Sometimes I just don’t feel fresh …’”) Subjects range from Doughty’s tattoos (we take a guided tour from arm to arm) to musical taste (“Prince or Michael Jackson?”); from song titles (“Why ‘Nectarine’ and not ‘Tangelo’?”) to the inevitable multiple choice: “Would you rather play Twister with Dick Cheney or punch a kitten in the face? And death is not an option here.” (To which our hero responds, “I couldn’t punch a kitten – I’d have to play Twister with Dick Cheney. It would disgust me, but I can’t punch a kitten in the face.”)

All in all, The Question Jar Show is two discs’ worth of why you want to see Mike Doughty (and Scrap Livingston) in a live setting. A full-band concert release would be something to look forward to, as well; but when Doughty sings “Let’s get down to business – now ” in the opener “Looking At The World”, well … the two of them sure as hell do.

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