Thanks, Dog: A Strangely Fitting Kinship

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.

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Preview // 2012 Hangout Music Festival

After last year assembling the platonic ideal of an outdoor festival in only their second go ’round –  dropping a knockout lineup and perfectly sized crowd onto one of the best conceivable settings for a live music event – The Hangout Music Festival returns to the beautiful beaches of Gulf Shores this weekend.  The third edition offers another eclectic mix of arena-ready headliners, regional favorites and the ubiquitous electronic dance music purveyors, this time spread out over an expanded footprint that puts the fairgrounds on both sides of main drag Beach Blvd.

Organizers have also dispensed with a schedule of official after-shows in favor of a kick-off party on Thursday.  Almost eight hours of music on each of two stages turns the Festival into a four-day affair for those arriving early and adds standouts like Big Gigantic (winners of this year’s Buku Music and Art Project), Boombox, and our own Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Revivalists to the weekend’s bill.  A comfortably spaced schedule and limited number of stages almost eliminates anxiety-inducing mortal conflicts, but we’ve still put together a short list of acts that come highly recommended.

5/18: Alabama Shakes – Chevrolet Stage, 2:15PM

Rarely does New Orleans (or anywhere in the Gulf South, for that matter) get included on the early-buzz circuit that sweeps the “The Next Big Thing” to sold-out showcases in the Brooklyns, Austins, Los Angeleses, and Londons of the world.  While the deft promoters and talent buyers in our city have a knack for catching bands before they blow up as well as bringing a continuously impressive string of de rigeour national acts to town, The Alabama Shakes‘ January visit to One Eyed Jacks hot on the heels of their successful CMJ run and subsequent signing to ATO and Rough Trade felt like an extra special treat – the timing of which was likely equal parts savvy booking and just plain dumb luck.

Playing an early show to a crowd as large as any we’ve ever seen packed into the French Quarter’s premiere rock club, the Alabama Shakes torched the stage with the raw fury of a band about as wide-eyed and excitable as the diverse audience assembled to get a sneak peek at the much-talked about southern roots rockers.  Lead singer Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell went well beyond validating the Shakes’ status as band of the moment with a performance that overflowed with virtuosity and charm, and it’s exciting to think what they may pull off on their home turf with a few months of high pressure gigs under their belts.

5/19: Dr. Dog – “Letting Go” Stage, 4:15PM

If you’re the type who perpetually thinks about music in terms of “the zeitgeist”, then unfortunately there’s a good chance that you’ve either never closely listened to Dr. Dog or simply disregarded them. Nevertheless, this Philadelphia group’s charm has always been their ability to craft songs as attentive to pop accessibility as they are to creative high-mindedness. While not the cataclysmic, industry-changing creations that get routinely credited to the Animal Collectives and Arcade Fires and White Stripeses of the world, the music waxed by Dr. Dog – songs that end up being traded, e-mailed, linked and placed on countless playlists and mixes – is more akin to a catalog of indie rock radio hits, sans the radio or any real criterion point for what constitutes a “hit”.

But then again, I doubt Dr. Dog have ever given much thought to their place in such a zeitgeist, and in that capacity these guys 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 rides a whimsical creative model for the type of band whose true colors one can really only experience in a stage setting with a revelrous atmosphere capable of matching their unique penchant for the free energy of unpretentious rock and roll. Unsurprisingly, the Gulf Coast has often been, aside from the Philly area itself, a perfect entry point for Dr. Dog’s unfettered live mix of pop, psychedelia and multi-instrumental virtuosity, and the opportunity to see them on the Hangout Fest pedestal on late Saturday afternoon should not be missed.

5/20: Mavis Staples – Chevrolet Stage, 1:45PM

The most emotionally charged moment of this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival came at the very start of what was supposed to be the first of two scheduled appearances by soul and R&B legend Mavis Staples.  She kicked off her Friday afternoon set in the Gospel tent with a rousing rendition of The Band’s “The Weight”, evoking her standout performance in the seminal concert flick The Last Waltz. At the song’s conclusion, Staples raised her arms to the sky and repeatedly shouted “Levon Helm!” as the standing-room only crowd rose to their feet and cheered wildly in a celebratory eulogy that lasted a full three minutes.  It was just weeks since the venerable drummer and vocalist, with whom Staples was slated to share the stage the very next day, had passed away; and of all the Jazz Fest tributes Helm inspired, her’s was the most moving and impassioned.

Along with the rest of her wide ranging set, that moment demonstrated the enduring power of Mavis Staples’ voice as well as her effortlessly wonderful sensibilities, both musical and otherwise.  After over 45 years at the front of the one of the most influential spirituality-based groups of all time in The Staples Singers and after appearing on the recorded work of everyone from Bob Dylan to Los Lobos, Mavis is once again in the midst of yet another creative renaissance after winning her first Grammy for last year’s Jeff Tweedy-produced Americana album You Are Not Alone. Plus, with Wilco in town for a their own Friday slot at Hangout, the potential for a surprise cameo (in one way or another) is at an all time high.

 

Hangout Music Fest 2012 Lineup Announced

Without a doubt, the Hangout Music Fest was the suprise success of 2011. For only it’s second year in existence, concertgoers from all over the country swarmed the Alabama coast town of Gulf Shores – essentially a first for the entire gulf coast region. In retrospect, though, the refreshing swell of alternative vacationers couldn’t have been much of a surprise: even if they hadn’t been treated to as peerless a lineup as entire festival circuit that year offered (which they certainly were), no one should be able to resist the thrill of experiencing any live concert set to a backdrop of soft white sand underneath a Spring southern sun.

This year’s bill of bands, made public today, appears to balance the rock and psychedelic ambiance of last year with a decidedly jammier inclination. Those ecstatic about the 2011 weirdness of Primus and Ween might be surprised to find the likes of Dispatch, G. Love and the String Cheese Incident in their place; nevertheless, among a sea of headline-worthy acts, you’ll find Jack White, hot on the heels of his just-announced debut solo record, as well as heavy-hitters Wilco and the Dave Matthews Band. High-profile returners from last year include the Flaming Lips (performing Dark Side of the Moon, something they merely teased with last year), Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Michael Franti & Spearhead.

Elsewhere, the festival packs a good punch of young rock bands like Dr. Dog, Futurebirds and the heatseeking Alabama Shakes while filling the nostalgia gap left by Paul Simon with acts like Steve Winwood, Randy Newman and Mavis Staples (who hopefully finds a way to join Wilco at some point in the weekend). With a slighter focus on hip hop with acts like Mac Miller, the Alabama-born Yelawolf and New Orleans’ own Big Freedia, the roster of electronic acts – the easy highlight of last year’s fest in the opinion of many – is noticeably thin this year. Nonetheless, brostep behemoth Skrillex will be leading a pack that includes young electronic duo Zeds Dead as well as veterans Paul Oakenfold and Shpongle.

Hangout Music Fest 2012 Lineup

Live Picks: 11.10.2011 – 11.16.2011

11.10: Dr. Dog + The Felice Brothers + Quiet Life – Tipitina’s

Many New Orleanians have a special place in their hearts for Dr. Dog.  After the five-piece Philadelphia psychedelic roots rock band self-recorded and released two albums of feel-good space-pop that caught the attention of Jim James and led to multiple supporting runs with My Morning Jacket, NO native Christopher Watson started much-loved local independent record label Park The Van Records to help release and distribute their 2004 breakout Easy Beat.  The album garnered widespread acclaim for the band’s endlessly creative studio prowess – which mixed 1960’s-style songcraft with the shiny lo-fi sensibilities of early 90s indie-rock – and spawned a nationwide tour that brought their dynamic stage show to the masses.  But even as Dr. Dog’s profile grew and Park The Van relocated to a Philly suburb in the wake of Katrina, their connection to New Orleans remained strong: local label mates like Generationals and Giant Cloud would often tag along on the band’s increasingly frequent tours, which dependably passed through town on a very regular basis.

In their first New Orleans show since a magical – and free – concert in the Tulane LBC quad last summer, Dr. Dog will be joined by The Felice Brothers, real-life siblings who cut their teeth busking on the subway platforms of lower Manhatthan – New York City’s version of our own lively street performance tradition.  Portland’s L.A. Canyon Rock revivalists Quiet Life open.

MP3: Dr. Dog: “Jackie Wants A Black Eye”

11.11: High In One Eye + Native America + Brass Bed – Saturn Bar

11.12: Wazozo – Yuki Izakaya

11.13: Stomach Pump – Hi-Ho Lounge

11.15: Gabby La La + Ratty Scurvics and His Imaginary Band + The Chinese Drywall Band – One Eyed Jacks

11.16: The Knux + Jordy Towers – Republic

Check out our New Orleans Music Calendar for a full slate of constantly updated live picks