Dr. Dog Peddled Safe and Predictable Nostalgia at House of Blues on Thursday

Dr. Dog With mewithoutYou House of Blues, Dallas Thursday, April 2, 2015

Dr. Dog are quite good at what they do, as they proved in a tight set last night at the House of Blues. But, as even their fans will likely admit, what they do is recycle, repackage, rearrange, and recreate the sounds of late '60s and early '70s pop/rock, from The Beatles to Crosby, Stills, & Nash. To most of the folks in attendance, it's safe to say such faithful revivalism is a decently valuable commodity, but that fact is already enough to shed some light on the central demographic we're dealing with here.

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As enjoyable as some of their songs are, Dr. Dog are the indie rock definition of basic. In the heyday of the styles Dr. Dog mine for inspiration, rock 'n' roll was a rallying cry for the counterculture. Today it's something completely different, more like background noise for Date Night, chosen for its safety. This is a band for people who think "chill" is an aesthetic virtue but want the indie cred that evades someone like, say, Jack Johnson.

That said, Dr. Dog are built for a live setting, though probably not the House of Blues. With six official studio albums under their belt, plus this year's Live at the Flamingo Hotel, there's an hour or so of worthy material to collect into a fine set list, and the built-in energy of performing provides a certain buoyancy to the proceedings. But standing crowds and strobe lights weren't a natural fit for their comfortingly casual, got-a-job-to-do presence. This is the stuff of watery beer and picnic blankets spread on the lawn.

Critics have never really jumped onboard the Dr. Dog Express, aside from an early New York Times profile, and these reservations have been mostly warranted, if a little obtuse when feigning incredulity at the continued existence of fans. More surprises would go a long way towards changing that.

Then again, there will always be an audience for well-played, tuneful offerings you can throw on for your old man without much fuss -- or take your uninitiated girlfriend to see, for that matter. Thanks to a talkative audience, the majority of whom were clearly there for vibe more than anything else, she wouldn't have to know a single song.

2007's Shame, Shame is the strongest Dr. Dog album, and it was fairly well-represented last night. There hasn't been much acknowledgement of the standout track "Shadow People", but when they finally played it during the encore, I was blessed with a brief respite from my cynicism. It contains, among other things, the best line co-frontman Scott McMicken has ever written, a perfect little image: "In some backyard, in some plastic chair/ Hoping these cigarettes will save us."

Just prior to that lovely slice of young-adult malaise, there's another lyric that was somehow inescapable, but for different reasons: "The neon lights on Baltimore/Every shadow's getting famous." Dr. Dog seem like perfectly fine fellas, and their show was the best you could hope for in the circumstances, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to self-awareness.

Dr. Dog are nothing if not pleasant in their weightless nostalgia, which made mewithoutYou a strange choice for opening act. The goofily-named outfit has been around a surprisingly long time, rising out of the weirder edges of Christian indie rock, making vaguely experimental, spoken-word-heavy meditations. There's absolutely no reason to think a Dr. Dog fan would find them appealing.

On stage, mewithoutYou had the distinctive look of stereotypical "college rock" dudes, and the occasionally discernible lyric ("...Time is an illusion...") confirmed a weakness for the pseudo-intellectual. Their set leaned toward what you might call "contemplative" compositions, but their final and best offering took advantage of a faster tempo without sacrificing the general sense that the words were supposed to matter. Without too much effort, I can imagine digging into some of the less pretentious moments in their catalog, and being slightly embarrassed about it. I guess that's something.

Since Dr. Dog's music has never actually surprised anyone, ever, they deserve a little credit for the dubious bravery of choosing mewithoutYou for a warm-up (though it was revealed they're "old pals," a more convincing explanation).


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