Johnny Brenda’s is packed. A regular hipster hangout, it’s the kind of bar that, upon entering, makes you feel a little less cooler than before you walked in. Of course, Dr. Dog don’t seem to care. Amid the rich, dark wood of the bar’s upstairs stage, in the shadow of a balcony befitting a Faulkner novel, they’re wearing hunting hats and sunglasses—not cool, rock-star shades, but the kind you’d find in a gas station next to the pizza pretzels and day old coffee. They are here to celebrate the release of their new album We All Belong by playing it in its entirety, in order, from front to back.
Live, Dr. Dog are a different beast (no pun intended). On record they play to their detractors’ cries with a latter-career Beatles pastiche, but tonight they tear up the Fab Four playbook and just rock out. Backed at times by horns and strings (the benefits of a hometown show), the sound is rich and full, like a French dessert—albeit one with an undercooked rawness. As an adopted Philadelphian, I’ve seen the band play several times in several locales with several different line-ups, and, while their records are pleasant-enough excursions into Sixties-soaked, harmony-hued pop, it’s live that they excel.
An incessant touring schedule—one that has seen them support (in the past year alone) the Strokes, Jack White’s Raconteurs, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah—may be the reason for their live prowess. Another, more prominent reason may be that principal players Toby Leaman (bass) and Scott McMicken (guitar), who democratically share vocal duties (so much so, they swap song for song), have now been playing together for more than a decade.
It has, in fact, been five years and four albums since Dr. Dog sprang forth from the dying embers of their previous group, local Philadelphia rock band Raccoon. Unlike its forebear, Dr. Dog defies the local tag (the band releases records in Europe on the legendary Rough Trade Records) while at the same time encompassing it: as the group’s new album title, We All Belong, suggests, the band’s members come across as peers, not pop stars. This could be due, in part, to their fortuitous ascent. When a taped copy of their second album, Toothbrush, fell into the hands of Jim James, lead singer of My Morning Jacket, he kick-started their career by inviting them on tour.
Despite tonight’s hometown advantage, Dr. Dog lets the music do the talking. The in-between song banter peaks with an early “It’s very nice for us to be here.” Their sound is shaky at first, as the three-part harmonies that permeate “Old News” take some time to meld, but they manage to pull it together before the two-minute track is done. “My Old Ways” sounds slight on record—as if a breeze would blow it away before it reaches your ears—but tonight it’s given a classic-rock opening, down-strummed open chords seguing into textured instrumentation and McMicken’s reedy but emotive vocals. The Beach Boys harmonies of Dr. Dog’s records are ditched tonight, replaced instead with a rough echo that sounds uncannily like Neil Young and Joe Cocker have gone cavorting in a canyon.
What serves Dr. Dog best is the interchangeable nature of their songs. Leaman’s tunes are taut, soul-filled rockers. “Alaska,” especially, sounds like the Band covering one of Stax Records’ more laidback numbers. McMicken charts a different avenue: sounding like Neil Young and Wayne Coyne harmonizing in a submarine, his songs have a poppy edge to them, one more melodic than weighty. These differences diffuse on the stage as Leaman plays preacher to McMicken’s country bumpkin guitar. Staid and serious, the bassist is a focal point because of his mic’s central position, but McMicken steals the show, wringing his guitar with wild abandon and hopping from one foot to another like he’s playing on hot coals.
Despite being stuck at the back of the small stage, the horns are punchier than a Mike Tyson weigh-in, tooting their way to the forefront. The crux of Dr. Dog’s credibility, however, is also their downfall. The songs are instantly recognizable, so much so they sometimes smack of pastiche. On a similar note, their over-earnest approach is, if endearing, sometimes cloying, especially on the inexcusably literal “Weekend.”
Despite the album-launch aspect of this evening, the loudest cheers are reserved for the announcement of older songs. The band promptly silences the crowd by swinging straight into the semi a-cappella “California” from last year’s Takers and Leavers EP. In complete contrast to the music that’s come before, “California” is a down-home, harmony-soaked, countrified slice of Americana. They follow it up with a few choice cuts from Easy Beat and Toothbrush, including a raucous run through “The Pretender”.
The show ends with at least twenty people on stage. Egged on by the band, they clamber up to help the group through their closing anthem, “Wake Up”. And though the lyrics are a little trite (“Wake up, wake up, wake up, it’s only part of a dream”), everyone sings along as one crowd member inexplicably takes his shirt off. I see him later, outside, un-shirted and shivering in the crisp, cold 1 a.m. air. He might have been dreaming before, but he’s certainly wide awake now.