Dr. Dog @ Musikfest in Bethlehem, PA; 08.04.09
words and photos by Andy Pareti
Well, a dog certainly stole the show at Musikfest Monday night, but it may not have been the kind people were expecting.
Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog was about half-way through their free show at Bethlehem’s week-long music and arts extravaganza, Musikfest, when lead guitarist/vocalist Scott McMicken brought out his old golden retriever – named Zimba –onto the stage to enjoy the music and mingle with the fans.
Zimba promptly plopped down at the front of the stage and immediately won the hearts of the entire front row, which clamored over each other to pet the pooch while the band continued the set.
McMicken has been known to do this before, but it was one of the signs that Musikfest’s recent attempts to test the indie rock waters could be a smashing victory. Musikfest’s Americaplatz, which overlooks the Lehigh River, was filled to the brim with concertgoers, many of whom had no idea who Dr. Dog was (for the uninitiated, Musikfest’s forte has traditionally been zydeco and polka music, so you can imagine the kind of people that walk around the town that week). But McMicken – and Zimba – engaged the crowd during a show that turned Dr. Dog’s Beatlesque psychedelia into a series of raucous barnburners.
Focusing heavily on their two most recent albums – We All Belong and Fate – Dr. Dog injected a haste and a vigor into their music that never translated in the studio in this way. Set closer “The Rabbit, The Bat, and the Reindeer” was quite simply monolithic, and their encore, fan-favorite “My Old Ways”, was performed at nearly twice the speed as its studio equivalent. The songs didn’t lose any of their vintage nostalgia feel, but rather the band rejuvenated them, making them fuller and more robust. 2008’s Fate, for instance, is an album I’ve always thought was a bit lukewarm, but after hearing these songs live, I feel it may possess the band’s strongest songwriting to date, and if Fate was re-recorded as a live album, my perception of the LP would change completely.
“The Beach” is one of those songs that sealed it for me, opening on Monday with a dramatic lurch before exploding into a wailing blues tirade. “My Friend” was also fleshed out, galloping fleet foot upon guitarist Frank McElroy’s twangy riff. We All Belong didn’t provide such a drastic makeover, perhaps because the songs were already muscular on disc. But “Ain’t It Strange” and “Worst Trip” both rounded out the opening third of the set, and they were served faithfully by the band.
Dr. Dog’s set at Musikfest was unique for a few reasons. There’s the obvious, which is that they aren’t exactly the kind of band you normally see at the festival (although you may start seeing more of that in years to come). The other is that they redefined what Dr. Dog is as a band more than any other band I’ve seen in recent years. What they did with the material they had – especially songs I always considered, well, weak – has been the biggest surprise of the week’s festivities. I sense a door opening here at Musikfest, and perhaps when Dr. Dog walks through it, Zimba isn’t the only one who follows. This experiment was a huge success.