“All good things come to an end” has to be one of the most extremely overused, inflated perspectives on any favorable scenario, especially relationships, and it seems that statement is most often inappropriately used to sum up the end of relationships built around music.
But, nevertheless, the proclamation does tend to be true, as is currently demonstrated by the Philadelphia-based band Dr. Dog, a group that sold out consecutive gigs at the 9:30 Club Thursday and Friday — its last shows in the nation’s capital on what has been announced as its last tour together. [Parklife has learned Dr. Dog does indeed have one more sold-out show at 9:30 Club on Oct. 1! — Ed.]
Thankfully for the many who’ve become religious listeners of the band, Dr. Dog has indicated that while this will be its final sprint out on the road, it will not mark the end of its studio work, which when analyzed in aggregate shows this band to be visionary, fruitful and one that embraced changes — arguably an evolution — in its sound over the course of two decades.
Taking the stage before a packed house at 9:30 Club on Sept. 16, the first night of two, the band was of course led by its wildly talented pair of songwriting, lead-singing characters: Scott McMicken, who plays electric guitar, and Toby Leaman, who plays bass.
These two long-time pals created this band, possibly by accident, as a side product of another outfit, Raccoon, which they led as students at West Chester University.
All the years later, having performed across the globe, taken trips to who-knows-how-many festivals, made about a dozen studio albums, and logged appearances on popular late-night TV talk shows, the band still presents itself as a do-it-yourself crew of friends from Philly, a dynamic and kaleidoscopic operation that has honed captivating tones over revelatory words to essentially develop two identities through Scott and Toby, who have created fresh music together since the eighth grade and, for all the commonalities they share, have strikingly different voices and ways about them.
Watch Dr. Dog’s Tiny Desk Concert performance from way back in 2009 on YouTube:
Those voices complemented each other so well last Thursday night as Dr. Dog rolled through a convincing setlist celebrating some of the band’s greatest songwriting achievements and their notoriety for bringing those to life on stage, even more so thanks to eye-popping light work by the band’s squad.
McMicken serves as almost a brand leader or ombudsman, and it was that character that has helped make the band so peculiarly endearing the first night of two in DC. The songs he led revealed a wise, seasoned human, a veteran underdog with a wide view of the world and those around him. His vocals at 9:30 Club were cloaked with an antiquated texture at times, almost reminiscent of the subtle lingering in Steve Goodman’s voice.
As if Dr. Dog devotees didn’t already cherish him, Toby proved himself to be not only a marvelous bass player but a sophisticated entertainer with an ambiguous charisma. Almost disguising his powerful emotions in how he presents himself, Toby dresses like a modern, urban gypsy on stage, but there’s no denying his passion, his force and even the allure flashing from his eyes as he embraces his role as head singer in about half of the bands songs.
His voice, a departure from Scott’s more industrious direction, vibrates more provocative, desirous and even romantic in some moments. And while Scott is more idiosyncratic and almost dry-self-humored in his mannerisms, Toby became openly and deeply absorbed in his play and let himself loose, stomping and thumping notes, grooving around and in between his mates.
Always behind the shield of his bulky, dark shades, Frank McElroy added character to the band at 9:30 Club whether he wanted to or not — half the time, he had a smirk, trying to show gratitude but staying focused while his fans screamed his name from the tops of their lungs. What possibly goes underappreciated about Frank is how much he brings to the sound as a supporting vocalist — his warmth and depth provides a supporting layer to the contrast between Scott and Toby. Not only able to crank monster sounds out of an electric guitar, he also picked up the acoustic and blended that more natural sound into a variety of songs.
Keyboardist Zach Miller, who has been with Scott and Toby since Dr. Dog’s first recording, The Psychedelic Swamp (2001, re-recorded in 2016), showed little emotion or even expression sitting back behind McMicken. But his intensity of focus could be felt all night as the band ventured deeper into its more exploratory work from the past four or five albums, and that should have helped even the most knowledgeable Dr. Dog aficionado gain a deeper appreciation for the range Zach spans within each song.
Drummer Eric Slick joined the band full-time back in 2010 and he continues to grind on in entertaining and hard-working fashion, exhausting himself for the sake of the band. And he did so last Thursday night while brandishing a sense of humor that recalls the likes of Philly’s own Tim & Eric.
The most recent official addition to this group, Slick showed a strong connection at 9:30 Club with more recent addition Michael Libramento, a multi-instrumentalist who has played with the band previously and has earned a a reputation as a Swiss Army knife, called in to tour with the likes of MC Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger) and Seth Kauffman (Floating Action) among others, and he’s in increasing demand to record with notable network of musicians.
Jovial, yet studious was his presence to the stage, and for most of the night he was in hysterics interacting with Eric and playing an assortment of percussion and noise-making devices, standing out on some of the extended jams.
Breaking down a Dr. Dog setlist is an exercise in personal choice, a celebration of one’s freedom of interpretation—to each their own — as to what constitutes a hit, and the Reddit threads have been abuzz with people talking about the song selections on this last jaunt.
But Thursday at 9:30 Club delivered by way of the opening “Shadow People” from the 2009 ANTI- debut Shame, Shame, followed by “Survive” from 2017’s Abandoned Mansion, both songs that hint at the band’s rock influences — lo-fidelity and garage sounds of the ’90s, all the way back to the more classically sun-tanned sounds of ’60s bands.
Watch the official music video for Dr. Dog’s “The Rabbit, The Bat, and The Reindeer” on YouTube:
Playing “The Rabbit, The Bat, and The Reindeer,” a Scott-led tune with infinite, unforgettable caliber, Dr. Dog treated the crowd to one of its most impressive songs, one that seems to toil with the idea of wasting time with people who simply are not worth it. This track was followed by the one that follows it on 2008’s Fate, “The Ark.”
And this terrific shift from a “Scott song” to a “Toby song” is what made the set move so fluidly, like a shared story being told throughout the evening. An ominous, inundating track that chugs with an apocalyptic sweatiness, this song lets Toby take a darker turn in that story while a nasty guitar riff cycled through the composition.
After the song joined the band’s voices together to ask a harmonious question — “Oh, what does it mean to be here?” — Toby belted out some of the most gripping words of the night, morphing into a horrifying tyrant of a man: “WELL, I KNOW BECAUSE I CAN AND I WILL. Yes, I know because I can and I will.”
“Could’ve Happened To Me,” from Abandoned Mansion, manifested as comforting and illuminating, with pleasantly concurrent sounds out of strings, keys and percussion to let Toby share more insight like some sage or nomadic guide offering clues to life through song: “At a border town I learned to keep my hat brim down. Never talk to strangers. Thought about it for a little while. Realized I was only a drop in rain.”
A bittersweet piece led by Scott’s voice, “I Only Wear Blue” — and he was in fact dressed in all blue — put the crowd in sway as he spit words that read like they’re pulled from a classic coming-of-age saga: “Well it came like a dream, but it went just as fast, like a dream, left out in the trash.”
Taking the mic back for the twistedly sinister “The Beach” from Fate, Toby got down low and crept as he played each note to start this one, amplifying his voice and somehow making his eyes even more fierce to hammer out: “Each footprint that they take, it will tell of our beat, til the night of the following rain, til the low tide comes to swallow pain.”
Dr. Dog returned to 2008’s Fate later in the set with “The Breeze,” then moving into “Under the Wheels,” one of the most acclaimed tracks from the 20th anniversary album, Critical Equation. “Under The Wheels” kicked off by a boiling chorus, this track seems to best blend influences of classic rock with more contemporary instrumentation, creating an infectious, obsessive hook that helps this track cruise along as, like many Dr. Dog pieces, contemplates the challenges of life and how to accept them.
Stream Dr. Dog’s 2018 album Critical Equation via Spotify:
Closing the set with two more hits — “Where’d All The Time Go?” and the internationally popular cover “Heart It Races” — Dr. Dog set the 9:30 crowd up for an rewarding encore.
Those three additional songs started with a timeless version of “Ain’t It Strange,” recorded on the 2007 album “We All Belong.” Lyrics that must be sung from an island, vulnerable and pensive, this song delivered not just in its attractive sound but its honest words: “Ain’t it strange, how everybody says I love you. Ain’t it a shame, how a word can tell you more than words can say. I need you here.”
With lyrics that can shift from sorrowful to constructive, with sounds that can dart from playful to cautionary, Dr. Dog has by its own admission come a long way from the band that got a lucky break when Scott handed My Morning Jacket’s Jim James a CD in 2004. And, ironically, it is that same role away from the band that Scott plays as a producer for a variety of well-known artists and as co-founder of Press On Records, a company with a focus on releasing albums via tape.
But regardless of what the future holds, the band’s first to last show at 9:30 Club — where they first played about 15 years ago — should only help solidify Dr. Dog and its touring career as uncommon.
This is a team that stayed its course to craft a detectable style and quality that its members perfected not only through studio recordings, more of which are hopefully created, but through their one-of-a-kind live shows and the good vibes those performances yield. Vibes so good that anyone would have been tempted to return for the second night. But unless you’d purchased a ticket for Friday in advance, you were out of luck. That show sold out weeks ago.
Dr. Dog’s Sept. 16 Setlist
The Rabbit, The Bat, and The Reindeer
The World May Never Know
Could’ve Happened To Me
I Only Wear Blue
Peace of Mind
Go Out Fighting
Buzzing In The Light
Under The Wheels
Where’d All The Time Go?
Heart It Races
Ain’t It Strange
That Old Black Hole
Here are images of Dr. Dog performing at 9:30 Club on Sept. 16, along with the night’s opener, Bowerbirds. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.