On set lists

April 16th, 2008

Mike Doughty interrupted his concert to tell a story.

Doughty, the former Soul Coughing front man, was performing at the 9:30 Club in D.C. last Saturday in support of his new album “Golden Delicious.”

As good as “Golden Delicious” is (and it is very good), Doughty’s solo work will probably never eclipse Soul Coughing.

(Soul Coughing broke through in the mid/late ‘90s, first with “Super Bon Bon,” then with “Circles.” Both hits were fresh and exciting. Fans that dug deeper, particularly into 1994’s “Ruby Vroom,” were rewarded with genre-bending innovative songwriting that sounded like nothing else on the radio.)

I wasn’t surprised when people were yelling out Soul Coughing standards during the Mike Doughty concert. Only, Doughty wouldn’t hear it, let alone play them.

He stopped the music and told the following story (and, I’m paraphrasing):

Before a Neil Young concert a representative for Young would tell the audience that Mr. Young had already se-lected the songs he would perform. In other words, no requests.

Doughty said there would still be one fan constantly screaming “Cinnamon Girl” between songs. When Young fi-nally played that (as it was on the list), the fan would change his request to another Young standard, “Heart of Gold.”

Doughty’s point?

He’d already made his selections. Scream out “Janine” all you want, it’s not going to happen.

The set featured mostly songs from “Golden Delicious” and the previous album “Haughty Melodic,” Doughty’s “proper” solo albums (we won’t count “Skittish,” recorded before Soul Coughing broke up and leaked online).

By my estimation, he did this for two reasons. First, he’s there promoting his new album and new band. Second, he’s trying to close the door on Soul Coughing. (The way I understand it, Soul Coughing had a pretty rocky break-up.)

He only played two Soul Coughing songs the entire night. I’m not sure if that’s why people were there (I was ex-pecting pretty much the concert I saw), but the audience actually started talking amongst themselves during “Wednesday (Contra la Puerta).” Maybe that’s because the song, great on “Golden Delicious” is a snooze in concert, or maybe they were just tired of all the new stuff. Dude, just play “Janine.”

The performer — be it Mike Doughty, Neil Young or anyone else — has a responsibility to the people who bought tickets, paid the convenience/service/Internet/handling/venue fee. The performer has to entertain. That’s their job, to deliver solid entertainment. I’d rather Doughty pick the set list than some screaming 18-year old girl sneaking a vodka cranberry. He’s the professional, he knows what he’s doing.

Doughty put on a fine show. A bit predictable (I turned to my friend and told him the exact two numbers he’d close with), but a fine show. As a fan, I’d have liked to see something a bit less safe, something more surprising than one EP cut and a cover of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” (neither of which I expected, making that the hightlight for me). But, the performer has a tricky job. He or she needs to play the hits to satisfy the casual listeners, a couple obscure gems to satiate the real fans and a healthy number of songs from the current album and back catalog to please everyone else (not to mention what they want to play). Do that in an order that makes sense, where the songs flow into each other in surprising new ways. That’s a recipe for a good concert, much easier said than done. It’s virtually impossible to please everyone. 

There’s always the fans shouting out song titles. Often you can tell how big of a fan they are by the song they’re yelling. But here’s the thing — in over a decade of obsessively going to concerts, I can count on two fingers when the performer took a request that didn’t seemed like it was part of the setlist (both were obscure enough). My favorite, however, is when a performer listens to the screaming audienceand pretends to discern song titles. He or she says okay, then plays what was next on the set list, regardless.  

David Segal, former pop music critic of The Washington Post, wrote a story in 2005 about his experiences going to concerts, chasing those rare, spontaneous rock and roll moments.

“Everything is choreographed, even the parts that seem unchoreographed, and there is no room for unplanned der-ring-do,” Segal wrote. “I knew this before I signed on as rock critic in January 2000. But there’s something about going to dozens and dozens of concerts that makes the artifice of these productions even more glaring, and when I go to shows now, it’s hard for me to see anything else. What we’ve got here, all too often, is musical theater masquerading as improv.”

The article — and it was a great one — went on to detail his favorite spontaneous “Moments.” But, as he admitted, they’re few and far between.

I’ve seen a couple, but I’m jaded enough to assume most, if not all, were part of the act. That’s fine with me. Sure, I love those unscripted moments as much as the next guy, but in general, I’ll settle for a set list that takes a few risks.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072


One comment to “On set lists”

  1. We got OLP to play Thief back in May 2001 up in Towson.

    That was awesome!