Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Dr. Dog feels like sex and sweet revenge. This Philadelphia-based rock institution gives the type of show that makes your blood boil in a way viscerally akin to the feeling of watching a Tarantino kill shot. Simply put, the band is overwhelming, and seeing them at the Fillmore on April 18 reminded me of the exhilarating feeling that many Rock concerts strive for.
Complete with psychedelic Pop hooks, soaring background vocals, tasteful arrangements, and an expansive emotional palette, Dr. Dog may be the most Beatles-like Rock group currently active. They don’t come close to the Beatles in regards to legacy or innovation, but they sound uncannily similar; Pitchfork magazine constantly rags on them for being too Beatles-like (which is hardly a flaw in my book!).
The recipe for a Dr. Dog album is apparently to take a bag of undiscovered Beatles hits, saturate it in a gritty vat of Rolling Stones/Allman Brothers heaviness, render it with an Indie-Folk-Rock aesthetic, and then present it with the passion turned up to 11. Dr. Dog is what happens when a group of kids obsesses so much over their parents’ record collections that they decide to form a band and bring this older aesthetic to their own generation.
The core songwriting duo formed when Scott McMicken, rhythm guitarist, found his Paul McCartney in fellow 8th grader Toby Leaman, bassist. Just like popular music’s most famous songwriting pair, McMicken and Leaman thrive off one another’s complementary composing and singing styles, granting Dr. Dog the variety characteristic of a two-headed band. Their self-released 2002 debut, Toothbrush, was nothing more than a pile of Lo-Fi sketches, but they gained steam throughout the decade before finally breaking through with 2008’s home run LP Fate. Their subsequent three albums, Shame, Shame (2010), Be the Void (2012), and B-Room (2013), were equally successful, with only a couple of dud songs in the entire mix. Dr. Dog now stands in the upper echelon of Philly rockers, with a well-established fan base that seems to have canonized their hits as classics.
Here in their hometown, the band evokes hazardous levels of fanaticism. Setting up their entrance with an 8-bit sound clip (and a half hour wait), Dr. Dog bounded on stage with the confidence of bona fide rockstars. They hit the ground sprinting with a string of their most popular and hard-hitting songs, repeatedly knocking the wind out of the audience without leaving time for us to catch our breath.
It would have been easy for the band to rest on its laurels and keep the audience captivated by merely going through the motions. But from the opening stomps of “The Beach” (a personal favorite) it was clear that they were actually revving up for drunken karaoke levels of gusto. Bands will often build hype by performing accelerated renditions of their mid-tempo numbers, but Dr. Dog dragged out their opener in a gravity-laden slow motion, making the audience beg for every lurching E-minor chord so that they were all the more powerful when they finally came crashing to the ground. Disregarding rhythm for the sake of dramatic pacing, Leaman tore the melody from his throat with enough steam to make up for the restraint he must have been forced to exercise on record. The catchy, full-bodied bridge gave way to a guitar solo, from which Leaman reemerged with agonizing force: (“This boooottle of bourbon/now dry as a bone”).
With a groove like a rip current and a surplus of performative zeal, Dr. Dog can make almost song compelling. “Lonesome”, for instance, is nothing more than a relaxed vamp on a single chord, but the band tacks on a clever hook and swings the song so hard that it feels like a bona fide anthem. “These Days”, a propulsive tune from the start of the set, is another example of Dr. Dog’s ability to milk a minimalist chord progression to its fullest and tie the whole thing together with a killer hook (“I hate when people say ‘those were the days’/Well what are these then?”).
Their set dwindled a bit in the mid-section with a string of mediocre songs, all at a more or less moderato tempo. At this point, I was struck by what an unconventional trajectory the concert had taken so far. Concerts seem to adhere to formulas. A band will hook the audience with a high-energy or popular tune before filling time with a couple of throwaway numbers. It is proper to balance the ebb and flow of each song’s speed and energy, keeping the audience engaged by sprinkling the set with songs they ought to know before closing out with the smash hits. Concerts may sell for their spontaneity, but most are meticulously planned, just like any other stage show.
Dr. Dog, in contrast, seemed to genuinely have no game plan at all. Right off the bat I had noticed how different their set was from the last time I had seen them play in Philly, but I assumed they simply decided to shake things up for the new tour. After consulting setlist.fm I realized that for each show they more or less play whatever they feel like. When the band reemerged for their ten-song encore (doubling the length of their set!) they held the microphone to the audience and took requests. The act demonstrated remarkable trust; trust in the audience to refrain from demanding that one song the musicians are all sick of, and trust in the band itself to dig up and perform dusty numbers at the drop of a hat. Indeed, the impromptu songs were as good, if not better, than those the band had prepared to play.
The band couldn’t have had a stronger finish. As the audience streamed out of the spacious hall, I stood for a while in the graveyard of trampled beer cups and other debris, sluggishly reacclimating to the world outside of Dr. Dog. By the end of the concert I was satiated but nowhere near bored, experiencing a cocktail of pumped up and exhausted that made me feel like I was floating on air.
Seeing a group of ‘60s obsessed Psychedelic Pop-Rock veterans at the height of their careers play a hometown show packed with ravenous fans was one of the more powerful musical experiences of my life. Though their music is heavily indebted to classic rock, they have a distinctive and contemporary aesthetic supported by a roster of consistently great songs.
That being said, the terrain of Rock music has become so expansive and diverse that the term ‘rock’ is now effectively meaningless. This is why people invented so many modifiers (Indie, Alt, Folk, Grunge, Pop, Punk, and so on). Each subgenre has not only a distinct sound but also a specialized set of aesthetic goals. Alt-Rock, for instance, may try to lull you or put you in the zone, while Punk-Rock aims at liberating the expression of anger, and Pop-Rock presents a hook that gets stuck in your head.
But Dr. Dog just wants to rock. Though they certainly have higher artistic aims as well, their prime objective is to make you feel the music in your bones. The band plays music that is pretty yet intense – out-of-the-box but easy on the ears. They make you clench your fist, grin, bounce, sing along, and groove to the highest extent of your grooving capabilities. So despite their modern indie-infused sound, they feel more like classic rock than any contemporary band I know of. Climactic moments during the concert made me practically tear up, as though a lump of sheer pressurized awesomeness were trying to escape from my chest.
Next time Dr. Dog plays Philadelphia you owe it to yourself to attend. It may be the closest someone of our generation can come to experiencing the thrill and connectedness of a Beatles concert.
TL;DR — Suggested Listening
Tiny Desk Concert:
“Where’d All The Time Go?”:
“I Only Wear Blue”:
“That Old Black Hole”:
… Or the entirety of Shame, Shame (2010)
Featured Image Courtesy of articles.philly.com