More than probably any other current American band, Dr. Dog knows how to remind a crowd what rock ’n’ roll is all about. Midway through the sextet’s opening set at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Saturday night, Toby Leaman — whose onstage persona is somewhere between Rick Danko and Neal Cassady — set his bass down, stomping, clapping and howling while singing lead on “Lonesome,” from Dr. Dog’s new album, Be the Void (Anti-). The camaraderie between the Philadelphia group, notably the core members who’ve been together for a decade, was palpable as always. And the raucous, Band-style old-timey rock flowed like Milwaukee’s Best at a kegger.
Dr. Dog’s last two albums, Shame, Shame and Be the Void, have been a little disappointing in comparison with earlier underground classics like Easy Beat and We All Belong, and especially Fate, the band’s 2008 Abbey Road-esque breakout. On the new stuff, more advanced recording techniques and rehashed ideas have come together to sometimes cloud the charming, irreverent old-school vibe that, along with touring like hell, put Dr. Dog on the map. But its invigorating live shows still reveal the talented group as relentless barnstormers capable of stealing the show from the biggest headliners around and making even a mega-venue like Red Rocks happily feel like a sweaty basement party.
Singer/guitarist Scott McMicken, whose high, quirky voice (reminiscent of the Dead Milkmen’s Joe Genaro) and deft guitar playing never seem to stop improving as Dr. Dog rolls along, brought a roar from the capacity Red Rocks crowd with the first lines of “From” (“Oh my love / don’t you leave me / ’cause I don’t wanna learn how to die”). McMicken soon jumped around Talking Heads-style while he and fellow guitarist Frank McElroy played harmony solos a la the Allman Brothers. As usual, the sense that Dr. Dog’s authenticity comes not just from a shared love of music but unconditional friendship was ever-present.
As My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, who took Dr. Dog out on a few tours years ago after hearing a demo tape, has said, as a musician it’s nearly impossible to witness the unbridled fun of a Dr. Dog concert and not wish you were in the band. That intoxicating energy was most apparent Saturday night during the set closer, “The Rabbit, the Bat and the Reindeer,” a fast-paced sing-along with no chorus, just gem after gem of simple urban Pennsylvania poetry. After the song, which became a stretched-out guitar-rocker with Leaman, McMicken and McElroy getting aerobic workouts until the dramatic near-“Free Bird” ending, the sun set and Red Rocks awaited Wilco.
Now called “an American institution” by many journalists and fans, Wilco has been around nearly 20 years and traversed the musical worlds of Alternative country, Americana/folk, bar-room rock, and a sort of electronic rock that blends navel-gazing indie pretense with mid-tempo, myopic alt-rock. Beginning their second straight night at Red Rocks with “Misunderstood,” a smoky classic from the 1996 double album Being There, it was good to see that singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy & Co. are still capable of keeping it simple and showing an audience Wilco is worthy of playing a marquee American venue like Red Rocks.
That “keeping it simple” part didn’t last long. The 2004 addition of avant-garde electric guitarist Nels Cline, now 56 years old, has been a boon when he teams up with Tweedy to wildly (but not extensively) jam out Crazy Horse-style, as Wilco did Saturday night on the A Ghost is Born gem “At Least That’s What She Said.” But as the night went on it became clear that every other song was going to turn into a dark, spacey, almost Phish-esque platform for Cline to noodle. Unlike the sincere, rootsy Dr. Dog set just beforehand, Cline’s noodling was in fact not what rock ’n’ roll is all about.
Still, “Impossible Germany,” “You Are My Face” and a few other tunes showcased Wilco’s ability — when not stretching out too far into the Cline-led fusion freakouts — to blend tasteful Allman Brothers guitars with brilliant, sharp changes that show how Miles Davis’ ‘60s bands powerfully influenced rock.
And Glenn Kotche is a truly special drummer. Trained in jazz but possessing the enthusiasm and bombast of Keith Moon (whose drum kit was similarly huge), there’s really no one like him in rock today. Whether you need a gentle genius on lyric-heavy light-rock like “Jesus, Etc.,” the sort of big-band histrionics of Sky Blue Sky, or the all-out assault of Wilco’s new foray into noodling, Kotche can do it all.
In the end, though, it’s hard to escape the knowledge that at the center of Wilco is Tweedy, a guy who can wow a crowd of thousands with just an acoustic guitar, a microphone and a couple dozen of his best songs. Others may disagree, but when I head to a Wilco show it’s to see Tweedy excel at performing his now-classic compositions — and to witness at least a little of Wilco’s “what rock ’n’ roll is all about” youth flowering again after all these years.
I don’t head to a Wilco show to see Nels Cline move his fingers frantically up and down a fretboard minute after minute while the rest of the band vamps.
So it was a breath of fresh air, and a little bit of a selfish bummer in hindsight, to leave the show early on Saturday and then see that Wilco’s encore — incredibly, songs 23 through 28 — was a romp through the bar-room rock (“Casino Queen,” “Kingpin,” etc.) that won the band a loyal fanbase before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made them Red Rocks-size stars. So take this as a lesson: Unless you and your date have a babysitter waiting at home, as we did, never leave a Wilco show early.