Orlando, Florida • Saturday, February 21, 2009
There’s gotta be something to Frampton Comes Alive. 16 million+ copies sold has to say something, right? In fairness, I’ve never even heard it. The not-quite-reggae and creepy come on of “Baby, I Love Your Way” sends me scampering in the other direction like Nadya Suleman from contraceptives. And to be all the way fair, I really enjoyed Dr. Dog’s Easy Beat, and, to a lesser extent, its follow-ups: We All Belong and the album behind which the band is currently touring, 2008’s Fate. What’s all this got to do with a Dr. Dog concert on a Saturday night in February? Well, let’s give some ink to the openers before we get on to that.
Cambridge, Mass’ Drug Rug got the party started. Never having heard them before, I was curious to know if they were actually an incorrect anagram of Dr. Dog. They’re not. They’re a guitars, bass, and drums quartet that’s really a duo (Sarah Cronin and Thomas Allen are co-guitarists and co-vocalists) that drags some friends out to fill in on rhythm when they’re on the road. Whittle it down further, and Cronin’s the real show here. At barely 5 feet, she wrestles her big bodied guitar, squeezing yelps and snarls out of it with every contortion. While their compositions were similar to Dr. Dog’s vintage rock sound, as the band loosened up, they veered more into extended jams and further off the path of raw garage pop, with the occasional country twang in Sarah’s vocal. The best thing about Drug Rug was wondering where Cronin’s creative, blue note laden leads were going to resolve themselves — if they were going to resolve themselves at all. Not terribly memorable, but a pleasant appetizer for the main course. Let’s call them spicy chicken quesadillas.
So, the Dr. Dog dudes, Frampton Comes Alive, and so on….
I’ve felt the intangible dope-ness of the dog doctors ever since I first laid ears on the shambolic Easy Beat. It’s crooked and sloppy, but shot through with so much heart that it could be an episode of Flavor of Love. I mean Love, American Style… but isn’t Flavor of Love really the modern version of Love, American Style? (think about it). Dr. Dog gets stuck with the “retro” tag a lot, which I guess is fair. Listening to Easy Beat all the way through gives you a bit of a John Lennon hangover. Their albums are packed with rough shod drum tracks, interesting twists, and sweet, sunny harmonies. Hearing the band live reveals a totally different, wilder, more rabid dog.
Dr. Dog took the stage with 3/5 of the band decked out in plastic sunglasses. Surprisingly, it didn’t seem vain or self-conscious the way you would think. Word is, they’re pretty shy. They had no reason to be. They jumped into “The Ark” without a preamble and took the mid-tempo jaunt up to a quickened pace. Ironically, it’s one of the few tracks on Fate that gives a hint of the muscular power the band possesses: there’s a breakdown that features a whining, tumbling dual guitar lead that indicates there are some real chops under all that shagginess.
That’s why Dr. Dog should follow the Peter Frampton model and release a live album that captures the full throttle energy that their limp (Easy Beat) or vacuum sealed (Fate) albums conceal. Frampton didn’t blow up until he “came alive.” I mean, have you even heard of Wind of Change or Something’s Happening? Exactly. Dr. Dog’s recordings conspire against them, turning them into a ramshackle Pavement and Beatles collage. The production value, more than self-conscious slacker-dom, makes them sound loosey goosey. In person they are assured: forgoing the small talk, and getting right down to the dirty business of blowing your mind with outstanding musicianship and band chemistry telepathically beamed to each other through their cheap sunglasses (holla if you hear me, ZZ Top!).
I found We All Belong to be a disappointing follow-up to Easy Beat, but I had to go back and listen again to tracks like “Worst Trip” after I heard the band tear the song’s coda to pieces with noisy, meandering guitar leads. Diminutive guitarist Scott McMicken shredded his instrument as he leapt around the stage and traded guitar licks and vocal harmonies with guitarist Frank McElroy. The combination of sweet and sizzling makes the live Dr. Dog sound like the Beach Boys getting splashed in the face with a glass of Allman Brothers. “What is this?” I scribbled in my notebook. “Have I heard this song before? This is incredible!” Indeed, the music is all there on the recording, but it’s as if I’d never heard it before.
Even though the set leaned heavily toward their two newest albums, I didn’t mind because the material felt fresh and visceral. These are actually great songs that have real life when exhumed from the studio. The drumming that seems loose on record is in lock-step with Toby Leaman’s steady and soulful bass. Leaman takes the lead on half the songs, his vocal style a throaty McCartney to McMicken’s reedy instrument. McMicken, who can be a bit grating on record, sounds fuller and more purposeful in person.
An overall enlightening night, and the band left it all on stage. Dr. Dog needs to fire its engineer, pick up a copy of Frampton Comes Alive, and consider running some cables from the soundboard to a reel-to-reel to capture the true essence of a Dr. Dog performance. There’s that, or you can get out to a Dr. Dog concert and experience the real thing for yourself.
Dr. Dog: www.drdogmusic.com