Photo credit: Bob Sweeney
Actor-scientists passed Geiger counters over the heads of the first few rows of early arrivers. Yellow-slickered field researchers combed through the entrails of sacrificed audience cassette tapes in a 15’ fan-boat parked in the middle of the crowd. Black-suited GI men wearing mirrored sunglasses combed the crowd looking for suspicious activity.
There was a palpable anticipation of not knowing what the f*#% was about to happen. Clearly, this was a show that was going to plumb that great, unused space of music and theatre and the absurd.
Swamp Is On is a collaborative rock opera between the band Dr. Dog and the Pig Iron Theatre Company. Underwritten by a grant from the Knight Foundation, the two experimental Philadelphia institutions have been working on the show for a couple of months now, and if night two of the four-night stand was any indication, it was time and money well spent.
Staged at Philadelphia’s newish, beautiful Union Transfer, Swamp Is On was a chance for Dr. Dog to re-explore their 2001 pre-debut, self-made, cassette-only Psychedelic Swamp. The tape itself (you can hear some of it on YouTube) is a post-adolescent, self-described mess.
But the show. . .
Refreshingly, the tunes that Dr. Dog laid down for Swamp Is On were largely unrecognizable, mostly reimagined and new compositions that created a cohesive and compelling—if really strange—backdrop to the beautiful sets, precise blocking, and crowd work of the Pig Iron actors.
This is the type of complex collaboration where an experienced theater-goer might wisely avoid opening night. Night two is the perfect timing. There’s still the amp in the air, and the confidence of “we’ve been through this once” carries the players through the pieces with greater ease. That confidence seemed to open up the show to possibilities. In short, Dr. Dog and Pig Iron were inspired, and inspiring.
The hour-plus Swamp production featured everything from on-stage green-screen compositions to “scientists” creating grainy surrealistic images for beautiful real-time visuals projected behind the band’s jamming.
At one point there was a chase between a crocodile and a crab monster followed by a boy-band lip sync number. A certain Dharma-Initiative feel pervaded, and there was something about aliens and lots about “transmissions.” The full-house crowd was clearly wrapped up in the fun of trying to figure it all out. But all of the absurdist theatrical happenings were somewhat insignificant compared to how transfixing Dr. Dog’s sound was.
If all of this sounds like a complete cluster, it was. But Dr. Dog has always been about the melody pushing through their retro-psychedelic pop arrangements. It was no different in the old newness of the Swamp set. The heart of Dr. Dog is the interplay of Toby Leaman’s heart-muscle growl and Scott McMicken’s endearing nasal vocals, occasionally cracking. Their harmonies soar and crash and bust your resolve.
The connection has been made before, and of course it’s ridiculous, but the most fitting comparable sound to Dr. Dog is Revolver to Let it Be Beatles, which is kind of like pointing to graffiti and saying it reminds you of a Rothko. But it’s an apt compliment.
Since their early days busking as a tight bluegrass outfit in local Philly bars, twin songwriters Scott McMicken and Toby Leaman have always put the basic musicality of solid roots-pop first. Fifteen years in, the excellent drumming of Eric Slick and the increasing presence of Frank McElroy on lead guitar and third-part harmonies has created a fertile backdrop for McMicken’s and Leaman’s compositions.
McMicken in particular has an visual artist’s sensibility, and Dr. Dog has always been a visual band that takes great care to make it seem they don’t give a damn what it all looks like. There was a beautiful moment in the piece where McMicken is carried upside down upon the backs of Pig Iron actors as he precariously churns out notes on his old beat-up Silvertone hollow-body. The lighting and the movement and the sound made the hair stand up on your arms.
When the band let the noise settle into an extended fugue jam and the backing screen showed images of swamp growth seemingly wrapping itself around the band, you felt the creepiness of the entwining vines. It was something to see, and hear, and most importantly, feel.
The band wrestled a couple of times with the old absurdist dilemma of “just how much do we tell them?” They would have been better off not saying anything at all. When they gave even limited narrative to the proceedings from stage, suddenly you noticed the silliness factor a bit more.
It’s not like the band eschews the silliness. The show would be akin to seeing Drive-By-Truckers do Southern Rock Opera with wind machines and Ronnie Van Zant mullet-wigs. But it was a thrilling silliness that seemed to reignite a band at exactly the point in its career that it needs it.
A 14-song second set of Dr. Dog favorites that followed the Swamp performance was a typically tight, exhilarating sing-along. And the band rarely disappoints live. At this point, any Dr. Dog show on a Thursday night anywhere is going to make you feel invincible. They are that good of a live band.
But after the weirdness and wonder of the Swamp set, the traditional stuff almost felt anticlimactic. Which is also kind of exciting.
In fact, as the tune “Heavy Light,” from Dr. Dog’s most recent studio record, devolved into a jungle beat, there was the hope that the band would actually return to the Swamp psychedelia of the previous set. This is a small complaint because the band more logically segued into the joyous shout-back of “Lonesome” and followed it a few songs later with the roots-grit soul of Leaman’s “Army of Ancients,” and burned the house down.
After its self-made beginnings, Dr. Dog has followed their 2007 breakthrough We All Belong with four solid traditional studio-produced offerings that have defined and refined their sound. After this year’s mildly disappointing attempt to capture the power of their live set, Live at a Flamingo Hotel, there’s a risk of staleness.
At the end of the Swamp performance, Dr. Dog rides the fan boat through the crowd and distances themselves from the analog tape strands still clinging to them. Are they leaving the lo-fi aesthetic and taking their bows for the first major segment of their career? Or are they going to dive back into their weirdness of it?
If the hints and teases from interviews and website video blurbs are any indication, some if not all of this music might be Dr. Dog’s next record. The conceit of Swamp Is On was that Dr. Dog, from first receiving the transmission of the Psychedelic Swamp tape, has been given the mission of converting the recording to “modern pop music.” If the music we heard this week is their next recording project, it’s going to push their sonic soundscape forward.
What’s always been most fascinating and heartening is the longevity of the unlikely loving combo of Leaman and McMicken. We all know how bands with dueling front men end up. And most Dr. Dog fans are either a Toby guys or Scott guys. The only ones who don’t seem to be are Toby and Scott. Every sign points to an unheard-of partnership between two independent songwriters who have been each other’s biggest backer since they were teenagers. Imagine that.
At the end of the Swamp set, McMicken winkingly sets the band’s intentions of being the biggest band in the world at the world. Oddly, there’s a little glint of truth to it. Someplace, sometime . . . just maybe. Whatever that would even mean these days. And maybe not the biggest band, but significant. Not big even, but maybe one of the best. If Leaman and McMicken have the staying power they look to have, and the creative vision they seem to be expanding, it may not be so crazy.