Mike Doughty & Rusted Root
July 18, 2008
Baltimore’s annual Artscape festival, the largest free public arts festival in the country, provides a wide array of distractions for the huge crowd, from vendors, to street performers, to spoken word performances, to live music. With music scattered across four stages over three days, there is something for everyone to groove to, with local bands and national touring acts all getting a space to play. Tucked away on a side stage in a corner, two bands who achieved similar levels of success in the mid 1990s, but who have taken different paths since then shared a night.
Mike Doughty and Rusted Root both experienced moderate levels of success in the 1990s, Rusted Root with their major label debut When I Woke and Doughty with indie jazz-rockers Soul Coughing. Both flirted with mainstream success, but never quite attained that lasting hold on our collective musical consciousness. Since then both have followed a very different path, and those different choices were on display in their live sets.
Since the demise of Soul Coughing, Doughty has returned to what he dubs “small rock,” in which he usually plays solo or with someone else, such as this evening when he was joined by Jonathon “Scrap” Livingston on cello. He still occasionally plays with a full band, and both of his recent albums have been in that format, but he is far more interesting with the small line-up. Even during his time with Soul Coughing, Doughty’s strength has always been his words and the singularly unique way in which he crafts songs to create visual pictures for the listener. This strength has allowed him to continue on, as even with Soul Coughing the focus would inevitably return to his lyrics. This evening he touched on all realms of his musical past from Soul Coughing classics (“Circles”, “Janine” and “Soft Serve”), lost gems from his Skittish album (“Thank You Lord For Sending Me the F-Stop Train”), to tunes from his two recent albums with his new band, (“Hear Them Bells”, “Put It Down” “Fort Hood”), and a smattering of other songs from his extensive catalog.
Doughty is as his best when he plays each show like it is a small coffee house no matter the size of the crowd, making each song feel intimate and taking time to chat up the crowd in between songs. With the crowd bursting at the seems as it stretched back down Mount Royal Avenue towards Charles Street, Doughty did just that. Dropping Wire references, asking the crowd to choose the next song, and joking about a broken string by reassuring the crowd, “that low E string was not good enough for you Baltimore, that is why I am going to get another” all made you forget that you were packed in the middle of midtown Baltimore with the sun beating down, as it slowly set behind the buildings. This ability to adapt to any situation and the constant chances he has taken with his music is why Doughty has been able to move forward after he first flirted with success in the 1990s.
That same reason is why Rusted Root has struggled since their heyday. When they burst onto the scene, they played like a musical commune, with a hint of “hippy-ness” and spirituality that seemed genuine. Their songs were heavy in tribal-sounding rhythms that forced you to get up and shake your ass. They rode this wave of good-feeling for a few years before lack of a suitable follow up to When I Woke seemed to drive away much of their audience. They continued to release albums during the following years, but couldn’t seem to adapt, their new songs sounded forced. They were at their best live when they could just be themselves and play extended versions of their early percussion driven tunes.
The same was true this evening. When they played their old stuff (including “Laugh as the Sun”, “Martyr” “Cat Turned Blue”) and let loose with drumming and sing-along choruses, they were a band on fire. However, their new music did not have the same spark and seemed to rob the night of some energy as it would move from the familiar to the “ehhhh.” But the band clearly recognizes this and they ended the evening with a run that had the crowd feeling like a sophomore in college again as they finished the night with “Ecstasy” and “Back to Earth” that had the packed crowd on Mount Royal Avenue dancing and twirling like it was 1994.
And that was just fine.