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Philly's Dr. Dog Brings Swirly Sunshine Sounds to Culture Room

Dr. Dog
Elizabeth Weinberg

It's a little after 11 on a recent Friday morning in downtown Philadelphia, and if it's not the coldest day of the year thus far, it damn sure feels like it. Luckily, the folks at World Café Live have taken pity on the hundreds of freezing fans who've turned up for a special midday set by Philly quintet Dr. Dog, by opening the doors early. The tour kickoff gig is a big deal in this town, being broadcast live on local radio and nationally at NPR.org.

As showtime approaches, access to the performance space is granted, and the room quickly fills with eager faces — well beyond the stated capacity of 650, it appears. That so many would show up isn't really a surprise, however. Over the past few years, Dr. Dog has clawed its way to the top of Philly's rock scene, and the favorable buzz the band has been earning nationwide has generated levels of hometown pride usually reserved for Hall & Oates, Will Smith, and the Phillies.

Noon strikes, and the band takes the stage to huge applause, launching with "Hang On," a track from its recently released fifth full-length, Fate. Simple, bright piano melts into a tangle of jangly guitars and bassist/frontman Toby Leaman's impassioned, sandpapery tenor. There are some divine four-part harmonies, along with a fusion of rousing classic rock and soul textures reminiscent, perhaps, of Mad Dogs and Englishmen-era Joe Cocker.

In fact, Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell a couple of years ago described Dr. Dog to the New York Times thusly: "It's fun, happy music, good for partying at barbecues or playing hacky sack." Indeed, despite the thick beards and knit hats onstage, the group's rollicking eight-song set feels like warm sun on your face and sand against your feet. It feels like summer, a sensation that lingers even a few seconds after stepping back out into the icy Philadelphia air.

And although Fate and its predecessor, We All Belong in 2007, were well received critically and have moved respectable numbers, touring has been the key for Dr. Dog. "The live show is definitely where we've built our fan base, which is pretty funny since we started as a recording band," Leaman says by phone. "For years and years, that's all we did."

The band's history stretches back to the late 1990s, when cofounders Leaman and singer/guitarist Scott McMicken were sophomores at West Chester University, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia. The pair goes further back than that, though. Friends since the eighth grade, they had written songs together for several years, drifted apart for a while, played in separate bands, and then reunited and formed Dr. Dog with an ever-changing lineup of college buddies.

They recorded tons of songs in basements and then began practicing regularly in a remote barn (owned by the parents of the band's original drummer) in the middle of Pennsylvania farm country. There Dr. Dog eventually began throwing hootenannies for friends, which Leaman still regards as the band's first gigs: "Nobody paid any money to come see us or anything, but there was beer there and we played music, so that definitely counts."

Eventually, Dr. Dog began to play sporadically on the Philadelphia club circuit and self-released two albums. The big break came in 2004, when McMicken and his then-girlfriend went to see My Morning Jacket and after the show handed MMJ frontman Jim James a CD of the band's songs. James loved the music so much he wrote McMicken a letter a week later, offering to help Dr. Dog in any way he could. Soon the virtually unknown group was touring regularly with My Morning Jacket just as that band was breaking big.

Dr. Dog's profile steadily began to rise. There were multiple tours with phenom Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (the band even played at CYHSY frontman Alec Ounsworth's 2007 wedding). There were fawning write-ups in major magazines, overseas tours, and two more albums, released on a proper label (Park the Van). There were even appearances on Letterman and Conan.

Jeff Tweedy of Wilco also gushed to the New York Times: "They're very irreverent, but they've really studied their stuff... They sing out, they sing with gusto, which isn't something that I hear a lot these days, especially in younger bands."

And then came Fate, issued last summer. One might discern a more melancholy feel to the melodies and lyrics. The album's title provides the motif for all 11 tracks, and sometimes things turn cloudy as Leaman and McMicken alternate lead vocals. (In contrast to Leaman's grittier delivery, McMicken's high, dramatic warble sometimes recalls Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue.) But there are enough buoyant melodies, jubilant guitar hooks, and delicious harmonies to cast aside most of the grays.

One might also spy a few sonic references to the past. Some of the band's detractors (including Pitchfork) insist Dr. Dog swipes too much from its influences, aping the Beatles, Beach Boys, and The Band. Naturally, that rubs Leaman the wrong way — even this excerpt from Rolling Stone's generally positive review of Fate: "The Philadelphia band's albums have always sounded like they should be filed alongside 'old ones' like The Band, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and The Bonzo Dog Band, but Fate feels less like a straight tribute to Dr. Dog's elders and more like a finely tuned collage."

"I would agree with that to a degree," Leaman says. "The collage part, anyway. I wouldn't agree with the first part of it. I love all those bands, but I don't think any of our records sound like tributes to those bands."

Is it simply a case of lazy journalism? "Yes?" Leaman replies sheepishly and then laughs. "I dunno, when people say stuff like that, I'm like, 'What are you hearing? Are you that unknowledgeable about the bands you're comparing us to that you can't hear the marked differences?'"

But Leaman has little time or inclination to worry about that sort of thing. There are shows to play for his ever-growing audience, the next album to begin thinking about, decisions about what label to sign with (Leaman admits they've outgrown Park the Van), and even bigger questions about the ultimate fate of Dr. Dog.

"The other day, our manager was like, 'What do you guys want to do? Where do you want to be and how fast do you want to get there?'" he recalls. "When we first started working with him four years ago and he asked the same questions, we were like, 'Well, we wanna be a band that makes records that people hear, and we wanna make enough money as a band where we don't have to work.' And now we're at that point.

"What are we trying to aspire to now?" Leaman muses. "That's what we're asking ourselves. It's a conundrum, but it's a nice one. I mean, in my own mind, I want people to think of me the same way they think of Neil Young. Crazy, right? But that's the ideal. That wouldn't be so bad, you know?"

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