Several years ago, when my older brother's career path turned from indie-rock to macro-economics, it became my job to keep him up-to-date on the latest and greatest in the rock world. He's been less successful in keeping me interested in the plunging exchange rate of the Chinese yen, but I digress. The man has come to love himself some Dr. Dog. Enamored with their albums but having yet to see them live, I knew this show would present us both with a crisp Autumn evening of fraternal, undulating bliss.
While the Mass Contemporary Art Museum, housed in an old woolen mill in the northwest corner of the Commonwealth, presents the ideal folksy climate for a Dr. Dog show, the concert hall itself leaves a little something to be desired. Essentially a giant black box, the sound is easily scattered and muffled, and consequently this was the loudest I had ever heard these guys play. After the initial shock wore off though, I didn't notice again the entire night.
Things kicked off with "Worst Trip," possibly the loudest song in their repertoire, so maybe the idea was to test the limits of the room right from the get-go. A few more cuts from We All Belong followed up, including a quivering version of the 'classic' "Ain't it Strange." At this point I realized why this band is perfect for people like my brother, who despite his many charms, moves eerily similar to Elaine Benes on the dance floor. With Dr. Dog you just need to bounce--each to their own varying degrees of enthusiasm, but this band is all about getting your natural spring in motion. They're all moving the exact same way onstage, you just gotta follow their lead. It is a true re-harnessing of the original power of the back-beat, and prog-geeks of the world shall cower over its simplistic glory.
The passion never wanes with these guys, and that had led to less shows being played this year as bassist Toby Leaman's voice was pushed to its' limits. Yet despite guitarist Frank McElroy taking over many of the vocal harmonies on Scott McMicken's tunes, Toby still sings his leads with no hesitation. Both "Hang On" and "Army of Ancients" from last year's Fate found him howling with full fervor and not missing a note. Even in a canyon of a room where the monitors must have been on a full-out battle to survive, the vocal harmonies, as were everything else, were spot on. While the room somewhat flustered the intended dynamics, they go for their original sound, and pull it off. It takes true talent to make it look as simple as these guys do. They would dig deep into Fate this night, playing ten of the eleven songs off the album.
Now I'm a big fan of nearly every Dr. Dog song out there, but there's something about hearing a great song come off a stage that can just completely reshape your connection with it. With music you're already intensely familiar with, this change can be strikingly unsuspected, and equally as magical. It doesn't happen too often, and Jeff Tweedy has to hold the crown in my own story for most intrinsic song restructuring, but two of Scott's tunes had this effect on me the other night. First was "The Breeze," the opener from Fate. It starts so delicately before getting into the all-hands-up groove, and then just as my flat elbows couldn't get any higher, the one line got me: "Is it a dream keeping you awake/Is it the stillness making you shake?" The second moment nearly got a tear out of me. I had been fooled by the playful "Choo-choo train" chorus on "From." I just hadn't listened to that song the right way, and hadn't realized how that playful line opens the tune up from just being overwhelmingly heavy. "Oh my God, he listens to me, and I ain't even talking out loud. Oh my God. And He says my son, listen to me, listen while the listening's good: You're not my son." You can't teach somebody to write a timeless song, but both Scott and Toby do it like it's second nature.
You can recognize the influences in their music, but when seeing Dr. Dog perform live, it is their own self-derived strength that is most noticeable. There was no set-break at Mass MoCA, rather Scott sang a couple acoustic songs by himself. Including one I was unfamiliar with possibly titled "All in Together." Yeah, that one got me too. They encored first with "Die, Die, Die," again with Toby's soul just heaving out of himself. Then they played a new one that had a nearly 5 minute Dog-style dub-out, with Scott working the crowd as much as a subdued rager like himself can do. As we walked out in post-show endorphin-overload, my brother hoped that the band would be healthy and together for a long time, as in our increasingly complex world, sometimes one night with a great band can make everything seem so simple.