Dr. Dog @ The London Cargo (26.05.10)

I’ve discovered two things ever since I’ve started blogging on this great little combined blog. Firstly, reviewing is hard. Well, good reviewing is at least. My previous film review took a lot longer than expected, hours rather than minutes (!), partly because of the competition with Daniel’s brilliant summations (seriously, someone employ that lad, quick!). Secondly, I tend to go all autobiographical when I write some articles, and this is no exception. So, if you want to skip straight to the gig review, just go to the bit further down aptly titled “the gig review”, but if you want a fuller introduction of my expectations and reasons for reviewing this gig in particular, read on…

The Prelude

Ever since Dr. Dog’s European tour had been announced, I had pounced on the omnipotent ticketline.com to guarantee entry to the band’s first visit to the UK for many years. This is something I had awaited for a long while.

I suppose I must explain to the reader why I was so quick to grab tickets for a band that the rest of the UK seems to ignore. I idolise the band wayyyyy too much. I’m not ashamed to say so. It is my measured opinion that no other band exists today that can combine extremely strong melody-writing ability, hair-on-your-neck-raising harmonies, dreamy yet thought-provoking lyrics and dulcet guitar work in a way that provokes a profound sense of déjà vu. Their music sounds like it’s been around, and loved, for years.

Ever since I was given an eMusic subscription for my 21st birthday, the challenge was to find a gem amongst the reams and reams of obscure small-label stuff that can be found on the site. After a little bit of digging, the band’s Fate album had the highest amount of 5 star reviews I could possibly find. After downloading one song from the album I downloaded another, and another, until I ended up with what seemed like the entire bands back catalogue.

This is a story told the world over. Many people I know have found bands in their teens (or even beforehand) that have really spoken to them, resulting in short- or long-term idolisation, often to an almost religious level. However, this is something I suppose has been rare for me. Perhaps I’m a late developer of a musical infatuation just as I have been a relatively late developer as a lover for music as a whole (mid-to-late-teens rather than the early-teens of my peers). Further, if I had been prone to venerate any particular band, they would be a classic rock band with a strong discography behind them (i.e. the ever-mentioned Beatles).

Hence, a lot was riding on this gig for me. Either it would add to my continued over-the-top appreciation of the act, or a bad performance would leave me emotionally crippled, like some love-sick kid reeling from rejection. Okay, hyperbole aside, if I wanted any gig to be good, this was one of them. I had travelled down from Warwick in the middle of an important week-long university project and had forced (well, sorta) my girlfriend to join me all the way down from Manchester for the gig. It had better have been worth it…

The gig review

So, I enter the London Cargo, a very hipsterish bar, restaurant and, (at the back) gig venue. Although it is twenty minutes before the gig was supposedly kicking off, a catchy alt-country-ish chorus is already ringing out from the venue. The horrible thought flickers in my mind that I have already missed the start of the headline act’s set. I rush to get half of my ticket transformed into a nice bit of ink on my right hand (as is the norm these days) and get myself inside the venue to see what is going on.

Thankfully, my mistiming had only made me miss the first few minutes of the support act. But, annoyingly, for once they were a good one. The unknown (to me at least) act on the stage had already kicked off with Mountain Song. Treetop Flyers, (as I would later discover the band to be called) had been expertly picked as a London act to complement the American act to be expected on stage later on.

As the band rattled through its set, I could swear that I was at a gig in some kind of barn in the southern United States. This had nothing do to with the Cargo’s interior, which more closely resembled the inside of a small aircraft hanger. No, Treetop Flyers' sound appears to be achieved through a gutsy vocal delivery, tight harmonies and formidable musicianship; making their brand of faux-Americana indistinguishable from the real thing. Although limited in the number of songs in their repertoire, the band played extended edits of its songs that could maintain the audience’s attention with strong soloing and catchy choruses throughout.

Most of the band was clearly enjoying their performance, with lead singer and guitarist bouncing around and increasing the level of energy in the room; just what a support act needs to do. Yet, it was the band’s lead guitarist, tucked away in the corner hiding under a large baseball cap who inadvertently stood out. Although technically perfect, he played the role of the incredibly shy musician to perfect, Michael Cera-levels of awkwardness. Why this should stick out in my mind I don’t know, but the weirdness this was injecting into the show was making it all the better.

By the time Treetop Flyers come to the end of their performance, I had rarely seen such a strong sing-along to a support act, with the half-filled venue erupting with an enthusiastic rendition of the band’s apparent refrain of “Roses in the Yard” (I would later discover the lyrics were “Rose is in the Yard”, but the two are acoustically indistinguishable).

With that, the Treetop Flyers’ set was no more than half an hour long, yet the bands songwriting aptitude was very clear. Although the band play a brand of music that is yet to attract a strong following in the UK, should the band continue and tour further-field around the country, they are likely to attract a strong underground following in the years to come.

Ultimately, the support had set the bar high for the truly American band that walked onto the stage half an hour afterwards. Dr. Dog, a five piece from the traditionally hip-hop dominated Philadelphia, picked up their instruments and jumped straight into Stranger, their lead single from latest album Shame, Shame (2010). Slightly more upbeat and overdriven than the band’s signature sound, it’s almost as if it was written especially to kick the (by now full to capacity) venue into action. And boy do they get the crowd bobbing, nodding and singing along to the tune.

Without delay, Dr. Dog launched right into their second, more laid back, single, Shadow People, and the band’s secret is already laid bare. The band shares lead singing duties between bassist Toby Leaman and guitarist Scott McMicken, with approximately half the songs written and consequently sung by one another. Attracting comparisons to Lennon/McCartney, this partnership is certainly a strong one. Variation in vocal style between songs, with Toby singing strong raspy vocals and Scott using his larger range and lighter voice to great effect, means that the band’s strong melodies are consistently interesting to the ear, adding to their almost insidious level of catchyness.

Describing the sound that the band generates live is just as hard as describing its albums. Many music journalists are quick to level an inevitable (positive or negative) resemblance to The Beatles, yet the only close similarities are the oft-running basslines that Toby Leaman generates and the close harmonies that punctuates the band’s choruses, bridges and, often, verses. Yet, at other times the Dr. Dog’s sound is clearly influenced by country, with banjos standing out in some album tracks and soulful, semi-religious imagery punctuating the band’s lyrics alongside description of small town life, especially on the band’s 2008 Fate album. However, live the band is much less rootsy, and is much more aggressive with its delivery.

As the band continue to rattle through its set, they stick mainly to tunes from its last two albums, the latter which was obviously designed for touring, capturing more of the band’s raw power and less flowery production. This is not to say that the band’s live sound is like-for-like with its latest album. Over the course of an hour the band slowly ramps up the overdrive and the gusto behind their performance. Indeed, one of the highlights of the night was Later, a track that actually comes across as one of their simplest and, dare I say it, worst from their latest album, but it works incredibly well live, acting as a punky, psychedelic crescendo.

It would be nice to hear some older tracks by the band, such as guitar solo favourite Alaska off 2007 album We All Belong. However, although Dr. Dog appears more interested in keeping its live playlist as up to date. Even two year old songs have often received a facelift, with Army of Ancients, now playing the role of a chill out number, with guitars and drums resembling Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross. Nevertheless, the band’s songwriting (and often storytelling) has come leaps and bounds. Songs such as Shame, Shame and Jackie Wants a Black Eye may tell stories close to home for the band, but the sentiments of loss, regret and starting over are understood the world over. Performed very tightly live, with new drummer Eric Slick expertly matching the drum parts, the enthusiastic singing from the audience testified that their narratives were not lost in translation across the Atlantic.

The only real criticism that can be levelled at the live sound of the band is the volume of different instruments in the mix. Keyboards were ludicrously quiet at times, and many luscious piano parts indiscernible through the overly-loud drums and bass. Even vocals were quiet at times, with Scott and Toby visually belting out the tunes but the PA system not obliging to make their words clearer to the audience.

Nevertheless, as the end of the gig approaches the interchange between Toby-led and Scott-led songs continues. Only needing to sing half of the tunes each, with the odd backing vocal, each singer’s voice is as strong at the end as it was at the start. Zach Miller, on lead guitar throughout, provides clear backing vocals to every song to perfection. Shame he hasn’t written any songs for himself to sing.

After taking the audience on a musical journey, from highs to lows, from lyrical despair to hope, how better than to finish the brief encore on a jolly yet depressing song? The band aggressively thrash out My Friend, imploring all to “keep up with the living / you’ll soon enough be dead” as we’re “heading for the same disaster”. The band’s bittersweet lyrics cleverly pull on the emotions just as the band leaves the stage we are left to continue our lives.

Ultimately, although far from perfect, Dr. Dog’s London gig gave tremendous insight into a band that thrives on creativity and providing a different experience between their album and live performances. Shorter than other gigs they have been known to play in the States, almost two hours with the Dr. was certainly long enough to provide a short-term fix for my urge to see the band live.

Let’s hope they return to the UK soon though, I feel a second dose would do wonders.


Free downloads:
Treetop Flyers - Mountain Song
Dr. Dog - Take me into town


Post a Comment