The longer I’ve hung around live music, the more I realize there are gaps. All of us have gaps. Some occur because we don’t appreciate a particular genre. Others appear because we were absent from what was going on for a period in our lives. Bottom line is that there’s always a lot of music coming down the pipe and never enough time. Choices end up getting made.
Dr. Dog is a case in point. It was a name I recognized. They were one of those bands that would pop up on The Current and I’d always say: “Who the hell is that? It’s pretty cool!” So when I saw that Philly’s Dr. Dog was off on their final tour, including a 2 night run in The Mainroom, I figured I’d better get that box checked before it was too late. I’m glad I did.
Opener Toth was up at 8pm. The band had the advantage of an early arriving crowd. That’s not something a lot of support acts get to do; play to a packed room the calibre of First Avenue. I’m not sure if many in the crowd knew the Brooklyn trio. Maybe there was familiarity with a predecessor project called Rubblebucket. But there were a number of times Alex Toth was able to convince the crowd to join in backing vocals just like we’d all been there before.
Toth struck me as a band hellbent on creating their own unique experience. At least for me, they defied any kind of meaningful classification. From gauzy butterfly wings to jazz trumpets and falsetto harmonies, the band was all over the board. At times I caught flashes of Flaming Lips or Cloud Cult. It was usually more about the groove than the hook. Most of all it was about a vibe that was light, free and creative.
I always wonder the rationale behind the selection of bands that end up on bills with major touring acts. Sometimes it’s all business. A label is doing its best to promote someone on the roster. Sometimes it’s a musical friendship. Often, it’s some combination. You just hope the acts complement one another. That was a mystery I found myself contemplating prior to the headliner taking the stage.
I was the one with the gap. How was it that I was flying blind? Then it occurred to me that when bands like Dr. Dog were gaining traction, I’d been heavily into Dad mode. So my nights out were limited. And when the Millennial generation was creating their own soundtrack, I was chasing a lot of World Beat, particularly Celtic, sounds.
Could it be that there exists some kind of natural competitiveness or tendency to discount the tastes and fashions of an adjacent generation? When we see or hear something that echoes a prior era, it usually skips a generation or two. I guess that makes sense. Kids are not rebelling against Grandma. They are always pushing back against Mom and Dad.
Even the bumper music had this happy go lucky feel to it. It felt like a party. The stage backdrop was a black curtain festooned with what looked like colorful construction paper confetti; like a trippy first grade art project. It was a bit outside my areas of familiarity.
Three songs in, I realized I was attending a Millennial Dead concert. It wasn’t tye die, it was Hawaiian shirts. No 70s rocker manes or beards; colorful trucker hats instead. An audience that just wanted to sway and dance in their few feet of space. Most of all a vibe that bespoke Peace, Love and Dope. And isn’t that cool?
Dr. Dog is a high end jam band. I have no idea what songs they played. I’m not sure much of the crowd did. More like…oh that one! I felt like somebody getting dropped into their first Grateful Dead show. It’s an entirely different experience. All about the spontaneous creation of music. No room on stage for egos. It’s an experience as much as it is a performance.
Checking the setlists from prior shows, it was apparent that this bunch played whatever moved them on any given night. They were doing back to back shows in a number of places and made sure nothing was set on repeat. And I’d bet my bottom dollar that if a song did get played on a subsequent night, it was treated in a different manner. That bodes well for those who bought tickets to both nights at First Avenue. Us single nighters get to talk about what we liked. The double dippers (and I’ll bet there a bundle of them) will get to talk about which night they liked better.
Here’s the thing about bands of this ilk; the musicianship is off the charts. Think of what it takes to be a pro touring band. You’ve got to be able to deliver a polished product that clearly separates you from the mass of weekend warriors out there populating the rock scene. Doesn’t matter if you’re feeling up or down, you’ve got to deliver. Now take that bar and raise it. Walk out on stage and improvise. Listen and react. Spontaneously create something new and vibrant on the spot. You’re out there without a safety net. It’s tough because you never get to rely on muscle memory. It’s full concentration every night, every minute.
Ladies and gentleman, that is special stuff. And it will wear on a musician. It’s also the domain of some of the best free flow players on the planet. The Dead never really achieved a great deal of studio success. They created sway parties that lasted for decades. They were meant to be on stage. I felt that with Dr. Dog. Maybe they weren’t high on my radar for the same reason. You just had to catch them live to understand.
The other thing that struck me was that bands that hail from that Philly/South Jersey scene are really different. Sometimes a city has a signature sound. Think Minneapolis, Nashville, Austin, New York. When I think of that East Coast incubator I think of a signature style. It’s The E Street Band, Low Cut Connie, Joan Jett and Patti LaBelle. When it comes to a commitment to bringing it in over the top every night, nobody does it better. Dr. Dog fits right in.
Is this really the end of Dr. Dog as the tour title proclaims? I suspect yes and no. On the one hand, I appreciate that what they do is harder than what most bands do. On the other hand, I get the impression these guys are doing exactly what they were born to do. So I’m hoping it’s just a break from the road. Lots of bands have done that. But the lure of the crowd, the immediate feedback on your new music, is hard to irrevocably walk away from.
Maybe what we’ll see is a page from the Grateful Dead playbook. It may not be the band, per se. But there are so many players and so many interesting combinations that I can easily imagine any number of offshoot projects. While watching the band on stage (and the audience dancing before them) it felt like things are too established to disappear.
History doesn’t necessarily repeat. However, sometimes it sure echoes. Part of me wishes I could time travel that room of Millenials back in time and take them to the never ending Dead tour. I think they would appreciate it. I know I appreciated discovering that this generation had their own version. My night with Dr. Dog reinforced a belief that the thing about a jam band is that you can’t take somebody’s word for it. You just have to be there.