Dr. Dog @ The Fillmore. 4.16.09

dr.dogI can’t say what impressed me more about Dr. Dog last night: that they executed mellifluous harmonies with startling precision in a live setting, or that they actually attempt such feats at all—and manage to do it without coming off sounding like an all-male collegiate a cappella group trying to form a band. Or too much like the Beach Boys. Being the first time I’d seen them perform, I will admit that I did not know what to expect—and they surpassed my unformed expectations anyway.

Upon initial inspection, I suspected they had stolen Rachael Yamagata’s Spring Fling ensemble from Slim’s a couple weeks ago: branches swathed in strands of blossoms wrapped with twinkling lights, faux vines creeping over all the mikes, even a keyboard disguised in fresh pine in an effort to approximate a nascent wood. Why all of this feminine flair for a five-piece man band? The answer lies in the dual nature of Dr. Dog.

What makes this band so compelling is the mix of seemingly disparate components they bring together to make a sound that’s truly unique (which also might be the definition of a paradox). Take the two lead vocalists, for example: Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken. While Leaman belts, growls, and wails the darker songs with a pain so potent it’s almost physical, McMicken intones an innocence affirmed not only by his higher, almost child-like vocals but by his youthful visage as well. Leaman provides catharsis while McMicken gives us relief from all that emotional purging.

Watching these two trade off songs, I couldn’t help but draw the obvious allusion to Cain and Abel. In the simplest of terms, Leaman embodies evil as much McMicken goads what is good. Hard-bodied Leaman certainly looks like he’s trying harder to win the audience’s admiration, sweating and straining through his songs (like “The Beach”, as evidenced by his soaked-through T-shirt), while the slight, endearingly young-looking McMicken literally breezes through his numbers, cool as a cucumber in his blue button-down and shades. And the audience sure goes wild for McMicken’s cheerful tunes.

Despite this duality, there is a marked cohesion to the band that brought this show from good to great. These guys exerted raw energy from the get-go, hopping and skipping nonstop, adding a welcome effervescence to songs that, apparently, the studio somehow domesticated. Anything but tame, Leaman dropped dramatically to the ground before launching into “Die Die Die,” and McMicken played so hard he busted a string during the second song of the encore, “My Old Ways.” But this show was not just a testament to Dr. Dog’s pure theatricality; the band also proved their technical chops. Not a single jaunt across the stage affected the accuracy of their playing, although it certainly added to the quality of the performance.

Much of Dr. Dog’s appeal lies in their ability to temper the syrupy sweetness of their lush harmonies with harsher elements, like heavy guitar or a driving drum beat. Similarly, you wonder if McMicken’s more pop-based ballads would be quite as fulfilling without the juxtaposition of Leaman’s bluesy laments. I think not. In the end, you’re convinced they are having so much fun up there that Cain is not going to kill Abel after all.

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