En Concert – Jack Johnson, Brushfire
Sad Man, Happy Man – Mike Doughty, ATO
Oh, man – what was that guy’s name? Help me out here: television show; ran from the mid ’80s to early ’90s; the main character was a secret agent and every week he’d end up in some hopeless situation that usually spelled doom for not only him, but the entire free world as we know it – but somehow, he’d manage to escape and fix everything using, like, a wad of gum, a coat hanger, and a nasal irrigator; never carried a gun … MACGYVER! That’s it: MacGyver’s the guy I’m thinking of. The frigging guy would rummage around in the pockets of his jacket and come up with enough trash to save the planet.
So, okay – picture this: say you’re locked in a room with an old beater acoustic guitar, a drum machine, and, and … a cello player! Yeah – a cello player. And the only way to escape this room is you have to funk and rock your way out of there, okay? Who you gonna want in that room with you? Well, you may have some ideas of your own, but if I narrowed it down to two people – Mike Doughty or Jack Johnson – I have to tell you; I’d vote for ol’ Mike in a heartbeat. And if you need proof, I submit for your perusal their two recent releases: Johnson’s live En Concert and Doughty’s Sad Man Happy Man.
Now, you can keep those cards and letters, boys and girls – this is not going to be an anti-Jack Johnson rant. Only a true ogre escaped from the Heart of Darkness could find anything bad to say about the guy. I mean, jeez – if he wasn’t already married, I have a niece I’d like to have him meet. And that’s the point: En Concert is a live document of all things good about Mr. Johnson – and everyone in the crowd knows just when to sing along and everybody’s happy and there’s no risks taken … it’s all safe and good and nice. Even when Eddie Vedder sits in on “Constellations,” all is well and happy around the campfire … nobody gets too loud or sweaty or anything. And on top of that, the album’s even dedicated to Johnson’s mom and dad. You gotta love him.
But if the job at hand is getting down to it; getting a little greasy, gritty and dirty; and, in the end, making your butt shake (remember, we’re locked in that room with some serious shoulder shagging our only means of escape) – then Mike Doughty’s your man. Half-rapped lyrics that are not only street smart but just plain smart smart, coupled with cool chunky acoustic guitar playing are what Sad Man, Happy Man is all about. (Cue up “Rising Up” and give it a minute; you’ll find at least one of your limbs responding, I betcha.)
Instrumentation is kept to a minimum: Doughty did all the drum programming and added little bits of keyboard here and there. Oh – and the cello I mentioned? The award for “Best Performance On Cello In The Most Unlikeliest Of Places Since Kurt Cobain Put On His Grodiest Goodwill Sweater And Had That Lady Sit In On ‘All Apologies’” goes to Andrew “Scrap” Livingston. A longtime tour mate of Doughty, Livingston weaves and bobs around the rhythms, knowing when to send out little flutters, when to lay into the bow and make that thing honk – and when to lay back and let things settle.
Some of Sad Man Happy Man isn’t pretty; but sometimes life’s like that. In the end, Doughty offers up grooves and words for an imperfect world. And sometimes that’s all you need to make your escape – unless it’s a wad of gum, a coat hanger, and a nasal irrigator.