Mad doctors animate murderous rock monster

This year, my Halloween was not spent just trick-or-treating. Some who chose to sacrifice the traditional protocol of Hallows’ Eve were instead treated to an evening of soul-infused rock music at the Crowbar in Ybor City.

The lineup consisted of folksy crooner Emily Lacy, jazz rockers the Sugar Oaks, the powerful Delta Spirit and, of course, the Philadelphia retro rockers, Dr. Dog.

Usually, I am one of a handful of guys fighting the urge to tap my foot – or, God forbid, move my hips – at local rock shows. Then I saw Dr. Dog at the Crowbar for the first time in March and all that changed. When I heard they were returning, I remembered that night’s wild gyrations and I knew I had to cover the show.

This stellar five-piece is making the rounds promoting their latest LP, We All Belong, on Park the Van Records (USA) and Rough Trade (UK). Although Dr. Dog has only recently gained mainstream notoriety – opening shows for Wilco in New England – the band has spent years polishing their musical virtuosity. Check out previous works such as the Takers and Leavers EP and Easy Beat (2005) to track the band’s ascension, but it’s We All Belong that succeeds best because of its succinct and commanding demonstration of how retro rock should be orchestrated and executed.

All the guitars, including bass, channeled riffs and tones reminiscent of the Beatles, circa Let it Be. Three-part harmonies bearing resemblance to that band and the Beach Boys give each composition a sincere edge. Dr. Dog’s songwriting attitude is like a fresh fusion of Isaac Brock and Robbie Robertson. Listen to “Alaska” on We All Belong for proof. The final product is a genuinely moving exercise in rock ‘n’ roll humanism challenged only by Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips.

Each vital member of Dr. Dog goes by a pseudonym to accentuate the band’s charm. TAXI (Scott McMicken) plays guitar and sings. TABLES (Toby Leaman) handles the bass and also sings. TEXT (Zach Miller) is on the keyboards. TROUBLE (Juston Stens) bangs on the drums and THANKS (Frank McElroy) plays rhythm guitar and does backup vocals.

When asked about the origin of these nicknames, Miller said: “It started with our original drummer. His name is Ted. He’s a real eccentric guy.”

He added that his nickname, TEXT, came from the fact that he used to work in a library. Of course, his working days are long gone. The members of Dr. Dog don’t have jobs anymore – except on stages around the country. They’ve been touring tirelessly for We All Belong.

“At the end of this tour, we won’t have much of a break,” Miller said.

When asked why Dr. Dog chose to celebrate Halloween in Tampa Bay, Miller simply said, “We just had a really good experience there. It’s a cool place.”

Dr. Dog had another good experience Wednesday night. All five guys took to the stage dressed as murder victims. They delivered an aggressive set while TABLES instructed the sound man on how to pipe in a satellite radio broadcast of spooky Halloween sounds.

High points included “Ain’t it Strange” and “Die Die Die,” which benefited from additional percussion by two members of Delta Spirit. The infectious “Keep A Friend,” featuring paradoxical lyrics such as “even gluttons gotta eat” and “even rich men ask for more,” was the highlight of the evening. All three tracks appear on We All Belong.

Although many in the Tampa Bay area, including WMNF 88.5 disc jockeys, predict Dr. Dog is going to be huge, the band probably won’t ever see much radio play.

“I can pretty confidently say that everything on the top Billboard charts is total sh–,” Miller said.

Instead, Dr. Dog continues to bask in the wonderful glow of underground indie-rock stardom, thanks in part to the songwriting styles of Leaman and McMicken. In addition to sporting two of pop music’s most interesting voices, they each have a knack for mixing catchy pop-rock with abstract sophistication. Miller proudly describes McMicken’s guitar playing as “a mixture of March Ribot and Stephen Malkmus.”

Now that I’ve seen the band twice, I can say that Miller’s description is apt. Thanks to Dr. Dog and comrades such as Wilco, Cold War Kids, The High Strung, Emily Lacy and Delta Spirit, one gets the feeling that rock ‘n’ roll is still alive.

All in all, this show was sweeter than all the candy circulating the streets that night.