2010 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Dr. Dog Gives Retro-Rock Vibrant New Spin

Philadelphia Band Previews New Album In Madison Stop

MADISON, Wis. — Classic-rock revivalists Dr. Dog is a band that prompts many questions and as of yet, has offered very few definitive answers.

Photo: Park the Van

Photo: Park the Van

Widely recognized as rising stars in the indie-rock scene, the Philadelphia quintet has sidestepped the trappings of post-punk pretense and thoroughly wrapped itself in the sounds and styles of rock ‘n’ roll yesteryear. And yet, listeners drawn in by Dr. Dog’s intriguing amalgam of elements swiped from the B section of ’60s rock — the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Band — can’t be sure if they’re serious about their reverence for history.

Sure, they make believe to be soot-covered railroad workers in in publicity photos, but hit the stage as hipsters who play as if they had been raised by minstrels from a traveling medicine show. Listeners can’t know. Is this all an act delivered with a wink? Are they the musical equivalent of Civil War re-enactors? Is this a little calculated devotion to a sure bet? Or are we seeing/hearing a group whose unique sound grows forth from their record collection.

The group’s concert at Madison’s High Noon Saloon on Friday night teased at giving us some clarity. The show lured together an army of underground music heads — chiefly bearded, flannel-sporting men and their female companions — who either wanted to learn the truth or were just pleased to hear the charade live. Adding to the stakes, the group was auditioning the new material from their forthcoming record “Shame, Shame” during this short preview/promotional tour of North America. This all suggested we’d finally get down to it. Not quite.

All this started with the release of Dr. Dog’s terrific last record, “Fate,” in 2008. In it, fans heard a group that really hit upon a sound that, while clearly honoring the best of rock’s past, offered what appeared to be a new spin on a familiar shtick. But, we couldn’t be sure. Maybe Dr. Dog was just a stupefying, sometimes exhilarating mishmash of ’60s rock tribute bands. Or maybe, just maybe, they were a pack of classic-rock songwriting students whose eccentric recreations of the masters’ templates — Beatles’ melodic hooks, Beach Boys harmonies and the Band’s rustic instrumentation — had gone horribly right. The Madison show, like any sneak preview, simultaneously wowed the audience with flashes of pop brilliance, but also briefly suggested greater things yet to be revealed. Ultimately, it deepened the mystery.

The band’s fast-paced set of just an hour and 15 minutes tested a handful of new, fairly straight-forward songs and devoted the rest of their time to energetic renderings of the highlights off “Fate.” Each performance was a beguiling contrast. The group was tight, but the rhythm section’s bounce and electric guitar jittering was loose and casual. One minute, the musicians were bundles of nervous energy leaping up and down and into each other on the High Noon’s tiny stage, and the next, they seemed inordinately cool and professional. Not being able to pin Dr. Dog down gave this concert an uncertainty and dynamism that few performers could stage so naturally.

The spotlight focused on the band’s leaders and chief vocalists, bassist Toby Leaman and guitarist Scott McMicken, who were mirror images of each other. Both sporting knit caps, the bearded Leaman was beaming and accessible. He worked hardest to transform each song as a kinetic experience. McMicken, who has arguably written and sung the group’s best songs, was more reserved and hid his face behind ridiculous UV-blocking sunglasses. The men traded the front position between each other with each man’s rendition taking the show in a new direction when his turn came.

With the new disc only weeks away from dropping, the band’s primary mission was to tryout the new cuts. By and large, they were still idiosyncratic creations in keeping with Dr. Dog’s sensibilities, but relied less obviously on the band’s influences and were more squarely in the rock vein. “Mirror, Mirror” began with keyboard hissing before rotating on an ascending guitar lick. The band members’ makeshift harmonies joined together during the chorus of “Mirror, mirror on the wall/There’s no reflection here at all.” The melody’s final third transformed into a fast-paced rocker with “Flight Of The Bumblebee”-style guitar trilling. “Later” was a thrusting rampage of guitars. Leaman was a general shouting orders as the group’s guitarists linked up for some double-tracked Eagles guitar refrains.

The bounding, sing-along bliss of “The Breeze” rolled out as effortlessly as a Motown gem despite being sung by McMicken’s craggy voice. The creeping bass lines that pulsate underneath “The Way The Lazy Do” take a school dance ballad circa the early ’70s and gives it a little funk, further transformed by Leaman’s grizzled vocals and searing guitar runs. The exquisite “From” was less ornate than the country-soul magnificence of the album version, but maintained the original’s Beatles-esque vocal turns and Leaman’s excellent approximation of the way Band bassist Rick Danko inflated notes beneath the drum beat to nudge the melody along.

If the band wanted a litmus test on the new material, the crowd was unequivocally enthusiastic. As for whether their new songs or their performance pierced the band’s mythology to reveal their artistic heart, the answer continues to remain elusive.

It seems beyond stylistic tips from rock’s greatest, Dr. Dog learned another important lesson: Don’t reveal the secrets. Perceptions are important and if you peer behind the curtain, you lose the magic. Authenticity isn’t necessarily what’s most important. Drawing in fans and wowing them is.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2010 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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