Words & Images by: Forrest Reda
Dr. Dog and The Teeth breezed through California in mid-July for a week of sold-out shows in small, sweaty clubs. The limited size of the venues left fans who procrastinated on the street, but those lucky enough to be inside were treated to frenetic awesomeness from The Teeth and chaotic perfection from Dr. Dog.
Already buzzing from strong reviews for Dr. Dog's most recent album, We All Belong, an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman and a much-lauded set at Bonnaroo, the band flew out West from Philadelphia to appear on the Craig Ferguson Show, routing a Californian tour around the performance with the band's old friends and Park the Van label-mates The Teeth, who were already on the road, and had gear for the band to borrow. Delta Spirit, an OC band that is friends with The Cold War Kids, joined the Philly-based bands for some shows as well, capping off a lineup that blew the doors off each venue, every single night.
| Leaman & McMicken - Dr. Dog :: Cali Tour|
I got involved with the tour initially as a fan, then as a problem solver, next as a journalist drafted into a driver and finally a full-fledged roadie.
There was one thing the band needed for the tour. My friend at Dr. Dog's label knows that I know people, so he called me and I quickly located the necessary item that the band needed. I pulled up at Dr. Dog's motel with the goods at 3 a.m. Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes on the stoop. I accepted the beer they offered and we talked for a bit, and then I pulled out the merchandise from my trunk. I opened the case and they appraised the contents with relaxed satisfaction.
"Suppose we don't need to test it out," McMicken said. "Looks like it will do just fine."
What I had delivered was absolutely necessary for the remaining shows on the tour. Having only four members, the Teeth were one guitar-amp short for Dr. Dog's needs. The band had managed for the first two shows, but an appearance on Fuel TV and shows at The Echo, Cafe du Nord and Amoeba Music were considerably higher profile gigs and they needed to borrow a guitar amp – preferably a tube amp. My friend Eric Lyman from Slackstring had a suitable Fender amp for them to use, on the condition that Dr. Dog use a Slackstring beer cozy on stage at The Echo. I assured him this stipulation would be met and packed his amp into my car.
| Leaman, Stens & Miller - Dr. Dog :: Cali Tour|
When I pulled out the assorted beer cozies and explained the arrangement, McMicken took an orange-colored model, regarded it for an instant and then pulled it over his hand like a wrist brace. "Sure, I'll wear it – you have my word."
Driving home later, I thought to myself, "How did I find myself delivering a guitar amp to Dr. Dog at 3 a.m. on a Thursday morning?"
Nearly a year earlier, I had been given the band's six-song EP Takers and Leavers. My initial reaction was that I really, really liked the songs and the low-fi-ness of the production but I heard the obvious Beatles influence and I wondered if it was an Oasis situation, where a musical update is nice and all, but why not just listen to the original? Repeated listens lessened this opinion until I contemplated flying to see them play somewhere because I dug the six-song EP so much.
| Toby Leaman - Dr. Dog :: Cali Tour|
Eventually I saw the band at The Troubadour in the Spring and immediately fell for the three part harmonies, fuzzy guitars and unabashed passion in Dr. Dog's music. The kicker for me was that they were headlining The Troubadour and the keyboard player was using a freaking pedal-board case as a piano stool. After doing some research, I learned that this was standard protocol. Why get a piano bench when the pedal-board case sits there unused during the set?
After the Troubadour show, I revisited their back catalog, digging into Easy Beat and getting into We All Belong, concluding that listening to a Dr. Dog album is like discovering an unknown band lost in the record bins of early psychedelia. While the records are interwoven tapestries of the best bits of the '60s and '70s with some garage flavor and beat-poet lyrics, seeing them live is living proof that music doesn't have to be performed flawlessly to be perfect if it's got soul, and Dr. Dog has plenty to go around.
They've also got great lyrics, like "The World May Never Know" a gem from Easy Beat.
Someone alone fell asleep by the phone
Waiting like a dog for a bone
How can it be that a fish in the sea
Could feel like it's completely alone?
The world may never know
The members of Dr. Dog are nice guys and humble, as well. In this regard, Dr. Dog is completely unlike the Kings of Leon, but like that train wreck band-of-brothers they seem to have skipped over all the shitty music in the '80s and '90s. Or maybe fallen through a wrinkle in time to land in Philadelphia in the early years of the new millennium. Everything about them – the thrift-store wardrobe, abundant facial hair, choice of alcohol (scotch, on the rocks), vocabulary and artistic leanings - hearken back to when musicians were outlaws who dressed like troubadours from the high-country.
| Toby Leaman - Dr. Dog :: Cali Tour|
The lyrics avoid historical references to the present. Content wise, they could have been written anytime in the last 70 years. Their sad songs sound upbeat while the happy songs sound sad. "Oh No," is a prime example of this dynamic, as well as the music's tendency to explode in the third act to a jubilant place that makes your hair stand on end. Their bravado has easily captured the attention of the indie-rock set with songs like "Ain't it Strange," a delicate musing on the uselessness of trying to stay in love over long distance.
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
The music transforms into an epic expression of sadness and joy intertwined in total sonic bliss. McMicken sings this one, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses. It's the kind of song that wants to play forever. Live, the band is fully committed to the crescendo, jumping about the stage like table-tennis masters on acid.
The songs that Leaman sings are less likely to include imagery like fish in the sea. He sticks to timeworn themes like cigarettes and whiskey. Leaman is Butch Cassidy to McMicken's Sundance Kid. They are musically inseparable and rejoice in their symbiotic relationship. The stage is big enough for both of them, and the set is long enough for each of their songs. It might help that Leaman plays bass and McMicken plays guitar.
| Scott McMicken - Dr. Dog :: Cali Tour|
The other guitar player, Frank McElroy, a giant of a man with a gentle air about him plays the other guitar. His size belies his quiet demeanor, although the backing vocals he adds are as essential to the band's sound, as are his guitar licks. Onstage, McElroy is more sedentary by default – he's just too big to thrash around, but Leaman and McMicken barely miss smashing into each other. A direct collision between the two would surely send McMicken flying into the crowd, but they continually glance off one another. It seems that they need this physical contact.
When Leaman isn't singing, he spins around, but always making his cue to add a vocal assist to McMicken's plaintive phrasing. While Leaman often shrieks like the world depends on it, McMicken's vocals are delicate by design. He doesn't over-sing. He knows that his band has his back.
Leaman claims that McMicken is responsible for "all of this – he taught me how to play bass 15 years ago." They were in junior high school and since there was no sports program at their high school, "it left room to study rock & roll on a full-time basis." The band works like a basketball team, setting picks and dishing assists. It's a circular way of playing music that recalls Phish's bar band days. Juston Stens and Zach Miller anchor the band on drums and piano, respectively, leaving the middle to McElroy, Leaman and McMicken.
At The Echo show I was invited to head north with the bands to help drive, navigate and pack gear. I gladly accepted the offer and the experience paid dividends as the shows at The Echo in Los Angeles and Café du Nord in San Francisco, plus Sacramento and Amoeba in SF's Haight-Ashbury district possessed "you had to be there" qualities that I've only read about and heard on tape, circa Phish in '92-'93.
| Dr. Dog at The Echo :: Cali Tour|
At Café du Nord, Leaman celebrated his birthday. A cake was brought onstage and Leaman looked at it, blew the candles out and promptly smashed the whole thing, candles still smoking, into his face. He then began to dish the frosting into the frenzied crowd. My timeline is fuzzy, but I think this happened before the encore, which featured members of all the bands, including Delta Spirit's Matt Vasquez on tambourine, singing the chorus to "Wake Up."
Oh, wake up
Wake up, wake uuuup
We are only part of a dream
All the things in your heart
Like the things in your head
Are only what they seem
It was one of those Last Waltz moments where everyone in the venue is both bearing witness and participating in something special.
The morning after San Francisco, we bid goodbye to Delta Spirit and drove to Sacramento for the long-awaited reunion of Frank Jordan, a dream triple-bill featuring Dr. Dog and The Teeth as openers. Park the Van founder Chris Watson has written a detailed history of Frank Jordan and the band's connection to Dr. Dog that you can read here.
| The Teeth :: Cali Tour|
We arrived early and found the venue door locked and the soundman nowhere to be found. This delayed load-in so we walked to the park that surrounds the state capitol. Some of the guys brought pillows and caught naps on the lawn, while a few of us sat in the shade and admired the huge dome of the building. There is a walking tree-tour, but the only trees that mattered to us were the ones bearing fruit. Using semi-smashed oranges on the ground as missiles, I along with Jonas Oesterle, The Teeth's drummer, knocked down some fresh ones and we passed them around to pass the time.
After the respite, we all took care of load-in, inadvertently leaving The Teeth's mustachioed guitar player Brian Ashby asleep on the grass. He would have wandered the streets for hours had he not walked up just as I was scoring a parking spot for The Teeth's van closer to the venue. Ashby was just in time for dinner, and we walked like a gang down the street, drawing stares from crusty Sacramento locals at happy hour and a few well-dressed wedding parties at far swankier restaurants than our destination. Someone passed around a trick lighter that gave a jolt when it was used. Leaman was determined to shock Oesterle and we all laughed when he finally got him to take the bait.
After more laughter and cigarettes, we were seated and enjoyed Thai food. Several veterans introduced the rest of the guys to the wonders of coconut milk, one of nature's finest inventions. It was one of the best "on-tour" meals The Teeth had enjoyed in a while, and once they were fully nourished, it was The Teeth's night to shine. The Teeth get super-loose onstage as brothers Aaron and Peter MoDavis take turns singing updated '70s new wave punk in the vein of The Kinks, The Clash and Elvis Costello.
| The Teeth :: Cali Tour|
It was the last show they would be opening for Dr. Dog on this run, and they wanted to make sure they were remembered. They kicked off the night with a set that realistically wasn't going to be matched. Music's not a competition, and the members of Dr. Dog are as big of fans of The Teeth as the members of The Teeth are fans of Dr. Dog. They enjoyed the set, and sang The Teeth's praises during their own set as well. They also praised the headlining band, telling the crowd that there would be no Dr. Dog if not for Frank Jordan.
Frank Jordan is a power trio with emphasis on the power. It is remarkable how much beautiful noise they make, and guitarist/lead singer Mike Visser's voice is incredible. East coasters have a chance to catch Frank Jordan at CMJ Music Marathon this October.
The three bands wore the audience out, and by the time Frank Jordan was wrapping up its encore, fans and musicians alike were spent. After-parties that had been arranged were dissolving into heartfelt goodbyes. Dr. Dog had an early afternoon in-store back in San Francisco the next day so we bid farewell and drove 30 minutes west, to find a cheap hotel and get a head start on the next day. Leaman insisted on paying for The Teeth's hotel room that night. "They deserve it, and we've hit our mark for this tour."
| McMicken & Leaman - Dr. Dog at Amoeba - Cali Tour|
The next morning greeted us with only mild hangovers and we charged back into San Francisco. I had won the band's trust by staying sober to drive the night before, and jumped back into the driver's seat for the jaunt back to SF. A definite perk of playing Amoeba is the free parking behind the store. The staff helped us unload gear and the band headed up to the green room to rehydrate with beer and chips.
As the viewing area filled with fans, Dr. Dog sound checked and kicked into a mini-set that delivered every bit as much as the club shows. The room was a little brighter then normal but everyone except Leaman and Miller wears sunglasses onstage anyway. Leaman and McMicken did their jousting and the fans watched, completely enamored with the boys from Philly. After the rousing set, the band signed CDs and took lots of pictures with fans. It was fun and the end of the little tour was near.
The bands did some shopping with gift certificates from Amoeba before The Teeth had to hit the road, on their way to a fan's BBQ to get some food. The friends repacked The Teeth's van with their gear, exchanged hugs in the parking lot and The Teeth were gone. The rest of us set out to get burritos, do some thrift store shopping and check out the drum circle in Golden Gate Park.
| Miller, Oesterle & Leaman :: Cali Tour|
When I dropped Dr. Dog off at the airport, McMicken told me I had to come out to Philadelphia to get the full Dr. Dog experience. There was an airline voucher in my backpack and for a minute I thought about calling his bluff, but then I remembered that part of the deal for me to come along was that I promised to help drive the van back to LA, so I told him I would be out soon and waved goodbye to my new favorite band.
Every week seems to bring some more good news. This week it was Beck completing a remix of Dr. Dog's "The Girl." It's Beck's first remix of another band's song, and while it kinda sounds like he used his Gameboy, it's strangely catchy and weird enough for the Dr. Dog guys to enjoy.
| Dr. Dog & The Teeth :: Cali Tour|
More great news came down the pipeline when the band was tapped to open a week of shows with Wilco in September and none other than Jeff Tweedy sang the band's praises in the New York Times.
Looking ahead, Park the Van is going to put out a special promo seven-inch vinyl in October containing Beck's remix of "The Girl" with Dr. Dog's cover of Architecture in Helsinki's "Heart It Races" as the b-side. "Heart it Races" retains the essence of the original while putting the Dr. Dog's stamp on it. The band wasn't ready to break it out on this tour, but expect it to enter the live repertoire when it's released.
Even more unreleased Dr. Dog music is available every Monday on the band's
website, and here's Dr. Dog on YouTube serenading California.
JamBase | Golden State
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