It was only recently that I began to finally fathom, after four years or so, the narrow yet oddly pervasive influence of Dr. Dog in the consciousness of New Orleans. I’ve always felt their presence here; it’s inescapable when you live in the town that boarded the dudes who started a label specifically to put out records for this group of outsider Northeasterners. When Park the Van Records became a concrete entity in 2005, it marked one of the only times up to that point in which the Big Easy had earned itself any sort of braggable rock n’ roll cred since the Warehouse hosted the blazing Hades of embarrassment that was Jim Morrison’s final live performance. Since that night in December of 1970, our local collective ken has been hip enough to hang its hat on legendary prurience like Soilent Green, Acid Bath and Pantera’s Phil Anselmo – artists whose well-established creative profferings to the American musical landscape have been perpetually stilted by the apathy of a Louisiana mainstream more interested in hearing the new Neville offspring with an axe to grind or finding the successor to Louis Armstrong’s platonic ideal of a brassman – while we place what remaining rock n’ roll faith we have in the hardworking, ceaseless touring ethic of creatively impotent alternative rock acts like Cowboy Mouth and Better than Ezra.
But all of the sudden one day, in the primordial months preceding Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans found itself with a fragile, though strangely appropriate, link to the outside world of then-burgeoning “indie rock”: a band of Philadelphia psyche rockers with a bunch of weird nicknames, a penchant for the lo-fi stylings of Guided by Voices and a musical talent the likes of which NOLA’s metal, punk and ska scenes (the only real bastions of DIY or underground music that truly existed at the time) had never seen. With a string of low-key performances in front of college kids schooled in Tulane liberalism or Loyola music careerism, the odd Park The Van/Dr. Dog paradigm presented an unobtrusive new concept for New Orleans’ confidently home-grown artistic traditions: a scene self-curated, the indie imported.
If you’re the type who perpetually thinks about music in terms of “the zeitgeist”, then there is a good chance you’ve never closely listened to Dr. Dog, or that you’ve simply disregarded them. I know that’s been my case for nearly five years, and it’s more than fair: I doubt Dr. Dog has ever given much thought to their place in such a zeitgeist, and in that capacity this group of Philadelphia outsiders probably aren’t making music for us wannabe patricianists. À la The Band circa Cahoots, existing both within and decidedly outside of the artiste-driven national musical climate surrounding them, Dr. Dog placidly gained national traction with Easy Beat, and they were more than happy to snooze the indie intelligentsia with a similar sounding follow-up in We All Belong, as well as with each ever-so-joyously-repressed recording since.
But for those musicians and listeners whose tastes are fervently tethered to and filtered through the culture of New Orleans, an aestheticism built on endless hours spent living as opposed to making, and playing as opposed to posing, the idea that this city could act as Dr. Dog’s unofficial second home, a de facto pied-à-terre, was one of the most revelatory events in their lives: here is a band of classic oddballs, schooled in all the perceivable ways that the NOLA greats of all genres had been (loose perfection of a confined craft, collaboration, irreverence and the courage to do it all in the most passé fashion possible), playing on someone else’s turf yet curiously running talent-circles around not just the rockers but the funkers, jazzers, punks, hip hoppers and zydecos. And then the band would disappear, without a trace of fanfare, back up to cold, metropolitan Philadelphia, leaving us down here reeling for more and waiting patiently for the next time this revenant spirit of dead rock n’ roll would emphatically thunder into town again.
That feeling and experience, of which I never had the blessing of being a part, must have been profound in that it left a lasting impression so far in the fronts of local artists’ minds that New Orleans’ massive flood was a mere speed bump on the road of what was to come. It must have been only days after being allowed back in the city to assess all the damage that a string of bands began popping up around town with a sound decidedly new to the local consciousness but vaguely familiar to anyone with a taste for jangly indie rock or pensive chamber pop. Untrained, I took it as another of the strange, faddish yet outmoded shifts that local underground music here has an inclination toward. Just as the punk kids started playing ska in the mid-90s at its national peak and those ska kids turned to emo as it became a phenomenon, this indie thing was the next permutation of a rock scene that – aside from a deep history of sludge metal and grindcore – has glaringly never had a personality of its own.
And maybe that’s still true about our scene, but I’d be a fool to continue to argue it after realizing not just what influenced the current slew of local indie rock bands but how it influenced them. Sure, local ska had its MU330 and Mustard Plug – under the radar out-of-town bands that had a heavy influence on the style of ska we saw – and early Dashboard Confessional provided the simplest and quickest way to emulate late 90s emo (there was scant impact to be found from the rip-roaring chaos of acts like Cap’n Jazz and Braid because, with the exception of Community, no one in this city was talented enough to replicate that stuff); but whereas those acts appeared to lead the charge in their respective genres, Dr. Dog, has from day one, actively bucked the bellwethers of indie rock and its continually fluctuating trendiness. And their music couldn’t simply be emulated, it had to be assimilated. If you wanted to do what these guys were doing, you couldn’t just ape an upstroke and find a horn guy, or learn to tune in Open C, you had to perfect an entire fucking craft: You had to start thrifting for an old Rhodes, listen up on your lo-fi and fuse together a wealth of psychedelic effects pedals; You had to find a drummer that could play rock and dance and syncopate with ease and you had to master baroque vocals.
The simplest analogy available is that Dr. Dog was the mother sauce of New Orleans indie rock, a bechamel from which the Silent Cinemas, Generationals, Empress Hotels, Giant Clouds, Vox & the Hounds and Native Americas of the city could arguably find their spiritual lineage. For instance, calling the Generationals a “dancier Dr. Dog” (as I have routinely heard) may sound like a write-off that does creative injustice to that duo, but the comparison is unavoidable and, more importantly, a revelation: in a flash the band’s lineage – from the defunct Eames Era to the Generationals to the offshoot Au Ras Au Ras – goes from run-of-the-mill to positively rich and resonant when one accounts for Dr. Dog’s floodgate significance.