Dr. Dog Digs Out Few New Tricks

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By the time Dr. Dog finished touring in support of its 2008 breakthrough Fate, the quirky Philadelphia indie-rock quintet had become what the Band was to musicians in the late ’60s and early ’70s: the group everyone would give a limb to be in. It was the authenticity, the seemingly endless energy, the nicknames, the obvious on-stage camaraderie, the harmonies, the charming lo-fi recordings and the endearing, timeless songwriting. At the Ogden Theatre and Boulder Theater over Valentine’s Day weekend, however, Dr. Dog — which formed in 1999 — showed that its performances may still be in somewhat of a formulaic rut, despite last year’s live album, Live at a Flamingo Hotel.

Flamingo Hotel, according to the band, was meant as a kind of swan song for a period of the Philly outfit’s career when the set lists (maybe too focused on tunes from 2008 on) had become too predictable — a strange problem for a band with a deep, diverse catalogue dating back to underrated releases like Toothbrush (2002) and the unquestionable classics Easy Beat (2005) and We All Belong (2007), which include some of Dr. Dog’s best material.

At a packed Boulder Theater on Saturday night, Dr. Dog emerged — in an edgy psychedelic stew reminiscent of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” — with a Tron-like setting, featuring a dark graph backdrop and the stage completely black except for colorful, pulsing lights on the drums, keyboards and amps. After the set opened with “Fire On My Back,” a delightfully haunting space-rock track track from the just-released Psychedelic Swamp (a reworking of Dr. Dog’s unreleased 2001 debut), singer-guitarist Scott McMicken gazed at the young crowd of just under a thousand and quipped, “It’s great to be back in Boulder. Excellent track record for Dr. Dog. Maximum confidence.”

The hard-rock bounce of “Be The Void” is a welcome addition to Dr. Dog’s regular rotation of songs, especially with the world-class, limitless drumming of Erick Slick, who joined the band in 2010. And singer-bassist Toby Leaman—who, on stage, cuts a figure somewhere between Rick Danko and Neal Cassady—was charismatic and magnetic as ever leading country-rock Dr. Dog favorites such as “Lonesome” (with keyboardist Zach Miller on slide guitar) and the sing-along “Oh Nelly.”
For all the unmitigated energy on stage (which has always made any Dr. Dog show near you a must-see), it was hard to understand why the Friday night show in Denver and the Saturday show in Boulder would open with the same three songs (“Fire,” “Bring My Baby Back” and “How Long Must I Wait?”), end the set with the same song (“Heart It Races”), and end the encore with the same song (“Lonesome”) — knowing how impressive the band’s huge catalogue of original material is. Especially with how many Dr. Dog fans are known to attend multiple nights if the group plays shows in such close proximity to each other, it was strange that more than half the Boulder set was also performed the night before in Denver.

While the band has written some songs since Fate that at times seem too close a parody of that earlier album’s magic, the group has somehow yet to write any material that could be described as weak. The Beach Boys-style harmonies were brilliant in Boulder, as were McMicken and Frank McElroy’s Allman Brothers-esque dual guitar leads, which reminded me of Gene and Dean Ween’s guitar brotherhood the night before during “Roses Are Free” in Broomfield. It was quite a Philadelphia weekend on the Front Range, with Ween and Dr. Dog doing multi-night runs simultaneously, but Ween set a remarkable example by playing over 100 songs in three nights without a single repeat.

Random Detail:
One of the toughest things to do in rock music, especially creative rock music such as Dr. Dog's, is sing and play bass at the same time. That Leaman can add dancing, like he's on a treadmill, to that is remarkable.
By The Way: It's easy to come to the conclusion that seeing high-energy shows — especially shoulder-to-shoulder, sweaty ones like Dr. Dog's — in Denver is preferable to Boulder. Denver music lovers, in general, seem to be able to have fun at shows without ruining the experience for others. At Dr. Dog on Saturday, and at many Boulder concerts I’ve seen in the past, college-age and older, nearly comatose concert-goers stumbled into and/or even intentionally touched other attendees because of what appeared to be intoxication. If you're interested in getting that brain-dead stoned, do us all a favor and don't attend a public event. If you didn’t show up for the music…go home.

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