I enter The Biltmore Cabaret and immediately hear Mike Doughty (founder of Soul Coughing) telling me to “Get onto the bus that’s gonna take you back to Beelzebub,” over a spider-legged bass beat and dramatic samples. It’s not a soothing sound. It makes me realize I’m late again. It makes me look left to right real quick, and make sure I brought my wallet, and my keys, and my wallet, and my keys. It kicks off my paranoia. It demands some sort of action. Or else.
“Voulez-vous the bus?”
Yes, please. I’ll have a beer, too.
I chill out a bit as my friendly neighbourhood bartender informs me his set has pretty much just started. Phew. Who knows if this guy is ever going to roll through town again? Not even two years ago, he was talking about how hearing Soul Coughing nearly made him physically sick. What if, after this tour, he decides, “Nope, that was a bad idea. Never again. No more Soul Coughing. Ever.”
I put the potential future dread aside and resolve to soak in the now. I grab a seat by the sound booth as Doughty and company break into “Idiot Kings”. Everything is fine, fine, fine, as I survey the respectable crowd of refreshingly style-less thirty-somethings. Some dance, while others lovingly mirror every single word that comes out of Doughty’s mouth. All clearly have an excellent sense of substance.
I can’t help but contain my giddiness as I immediately recognize the beginning of “Unmarked Helicopters”. I tap Katy and whisper-yell, “This is the first song I ever heard by them! It’s off the first X-Files soundtrack!” She nods in acknowledgement. “Cool.” I’m not sure what kind of response I expected to receive in exchange for my shared geek-out; a seemingly genuine “cool” is more than enough.
The stool upon which a man sits nearby collapses.
As I ponder the thought of how “unmarked helicopters hovering” used to make me think of alien cover-ups, but now make me think of NSA surveillance and Obama-drones, “Lazybones” kicks off and prompts the loudest reaction of the night so far. The languid tech-drone of the beloved favourite off Soul Coughing’s sophomore album Irresistible Bliss (1996) maintains the warm, unsettling feeling of the previous number.
The familiar sound of horns announced the beginning of “Screenwriter’s Blues”. “Exits to freeways twisted like knots on the fingers…” I get so lost so quickly in this tune. I can never settle on where I’m imagining myself to be whenever I hear it – Is it on the midnight L.A. freeway? Is it in my shitty L.A. bachelor, writer-blocked in front of a rusty typewriter that has never worked properly? Is it peering into the dark radio booth watching the L.A. radio man attack the microphone? Wherever it is, “It is 5 a.m. / And you are listening to / Los Angeles.”
A glass which held cold beer a moment ago collapses.
After the “Blues” comes another one of my favourites off Ruby Vroom (1994), the heavily hip hoppy “Uh, Zoom Zip”. The less jazzy, more beat-oriented version bops with authority right up until the dream ends and the song fades, phasing out into a synth transition that leads to the sweet tartness of “Mr. Bitterness”.
Mike Doughty and his band bang through reinvented selections from the Soul Coughing catalogue, peaking, at least in terms of spectator energy, with the excellent “St. Louise Is Listening”. The song drips with attitude, spreading energy like a reverse blackout throughout the crowd. Catholic thoughts of childish guilt from swearing buzz around my brain as Doughty vibes off, “I could be your baby doll / I could be your doll baby / I could be the things you want / I could do it all for you.”
We clap, yell, and whistle our respect and appreciation as Mike breaks in, “Alright everybody, we have formulated a plan. We’re gonna play the song before the fake last song, then we will pretend to leave the stage, then we’re gonna play two more songs.” There you have it. No bullshit ‘encore’; there’s four songs left. That’s all we need to know.
Our bald, fat-chopped bard and his band mates wrap up the night with “Moon Sammy”, “Super Bon Bon”, “Janine” and, of course, “Circles”, which includes the best/only banter between frontman, drummer, and drum machine you’ve ever heard.
“Ah, it’s good to be back in Van… We appreciate your support. You guys have been awesome,” says Mike, smiling. As the Friday crowd whoops and expels its last reserves of show energy, he tosses his guitar onto the floor, gives it a few more lazy strums, and walks right out the door.
As the crowd spills out from The Biltmore, yawning fathers surely crossing their daughters as they wait for the old farts to hit the road, I grab a set list and see that I missed “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” and “Sugar Free Jazz” earlier this evening. Damn it. Best not to think about it. Best to just bask in the afterglow.
After all, it was Friday night… and we had just been listening to… Mike Doughty.