Mike Doughty's Ghost of Vroom
Union Pool, Brooklyn, NY
Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022
Mike Doughty's Ghost of Vroom felt to me like a philosophical demonstration of how much of a musical performance can be purely gestural, with no inherent meaning. Some of the gestural aspect was literal: Doughty acted as a conductor, not a la Leonard Bernstein (though with just as much demonstrative motion as Lenny famously exerted) but rather in the mode of John Zorn leading a Cobra performance, Butch Morris's "conduction," or Steven Bernstein's more loosely guided Millennial Territory Orchestra. Doughty, a habitué of the fertile downtown NYC scene of the '90s, would be well-versed in all of these (and did participate in Cobra).
But on a meta level, it was an exploration of how little meaning a band's vocalist frontman can convey while going through the motions expected by audiences from someone in that role.
The first set lasted an hour and involved the expenditure of so much energy on the part of the musicians (and, for that matter, some audience members nodding vigorously and bopping along) that I was surprised when Doughty announced that it was, in fact, a first set and not the whole evening's show. Though made up of discrete sections separated by cessation of playing and subsequent applause, that hour was so stylistically and verbally coherent that it could have been considered a unified suite. As such, its title would have been "Oh, Whoa, Wooh, Alright, I Said Alright," if named as songs usually are by the most frequently vocalized words. There were other spoken/shouted phrases, but even in the small space of Union Pool's indoor performance space, they were unintelligible. Even when actual words were discerned, their meaning as language was unclear; both sentences and exclamations were deployed not to function as language but instead to fill the rhythmic and performative roles of language without actually functioning as information-conveying language.
Not that the hour wasn't, in fact, made up of individually titled pieces, which Doughty would convey to the band before launching into each one. Said musicians were long-time Doughty collaborator Andrew "Scrap" Livingston on cello, Matthew Milligan on electric bass, and two guests: avant-superstar electric guitarist Marc Ribot (often wielding an EBow), and drummer Madden Klass (Wheatus). Besides his conducting and (very intermittent) vocalizing, Doughty occasionally played electric guitar, mostly in a rhythm role; used a laptop to play chopped-up vocal sounds that basically were just various vowels repeated rhythmically; cued the other musicians in and out -- mostly, it seemed, to vary the density of the textures -- in a physically vigorous way involving arm and hand motions; and moving spasmodically with the rhythms, with one repeated gesture being the removal and then replacement of the cap he wears on his shaved head. In an odd way it resembled a highly condensed version of James Brown fronting his band, but with the drumming of Klass much more forcebeat than funk
And now, finally, to confront the question of the band's name. Doughty has an ambivalent relationship with the fame of his 1992-2000 band Soul Coughing, whose first album was Ruby Vroom. Ghost of Vroom could be seen as an update of that band (though with Doughty the only member in common), a parody of stylistic elements of that band (its improvisation a nod to what Doughty once called "slacker jazz"; his free-associative lyrics that in delivery nod to rap without offering rap content; the use of sampling), a gesture of accommodation of audience demand, and arguably all of these at once: like I said, meta.
A more conscientious reviewer would have stayed for the second set; I, however, had been exhausted by the frankly stunning power of the first set. Not that I'd gone as a reviewer; I went as a longtime fan who paid for his ticket. Only in retrospect did my fascination with what I'd witnessed make me ponder it and then set down these thoughts. I could be completely wrong about all of this.
The show I saw was the second of four weekly appearances with Ghost of Vroom and assorted guests at Union Pool on Sundays this month.