Too Much Rock
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Monday October 12th, 2009 at The Bottleneck in Lawrence, KS
Dr. Dog, & Jeffrey Lewis & the Junkyard
Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog
Toby Leaman of Dr. Dog
Jeffrey Lewis
[more photos]
[linked video]

Before we start, give me a minute to talk to just the Bottleneck. Alone. The rest of you should just skip down now. I'll be with you in a minute. Gone? Good. Bottleneck, you suck. I never know when your shows are going to start. I'd love to see you list the start times of the various acts (as many of your competitors do – and, btw, you do have competitors), but I'd settle for the start time of the first act. The FAQ section is no help either. While it does tell me the type of soundboard you have, there is no mention of what time shows generally begin. Now, are more bands or patrons visiting your website? Maybe it's time for a new section? I even tried calling your phone number, but for hours I only got your answering machine. And the message there? It was only a voice telling me to check out your website. Lovely, that's just where we started. Time to step it up Bottleneck. Srsly.

At 8:15 Katie and I left Kansas City behind and zipped across the toll road. An unheard KJHK DJ played nondescript dance tracks, as I wondered if we would arrive in Lawrence an hour early, or if we'd be an hour late; there was just no telling. After a optimistic, but unfruitful, pass in front of the club, we circled the block and parked on Massachusetts Street. I decided we were late, so it was quickly through the alley, across the parking lot, past two cops chatting nonchalantly over the passed out (I hope) body of a homeless man, and through the doors of the club. It was just past 9:00 but the opening act was already playing. $14 seems like a lot for Dr. Dog. Still, I paid and we hurried toward to the stage.

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard was already finishing its second song by the time I managed to assemble my camera. I had just enough time to snap a few shots before the band asked for the lights to be dimmed in order to show a film. Jeffrey Lewis tours with large format, hand-drawn comic books that he typically flips through while singing his adorably wordy anti-folk. However, at larger shows like this, he instead projects the pre-scanned pages onto a screen at the back of the stage. This was the aforementioned "film." Although the audience was already sold on Lewis before this song, afterwards it was smitten. And why not? Lewis's songs are fun. They're engaging. And they all tell excellent stories. The illustrations only emphasise this fact.

Lewis would project his illustrations for two other songs before his set was over. The most interesting was part four of his sympathetic "History of Communism" series. Part four is about Chinese communism. After completing the epic (easily seven-minute long) retelling of the triumphs and foibles of Mao Tse Tung, I shouted for Crass's "Big A Little A" as counterpoint. With no female vocals on this tour, the band instead offered "Banned from the Roxy." I can live with that. Like the rest of the set, Lewis's "Banned from the Roxy" is built on repetitive guitar chords, a nasal, conversational vocal style sung in a regular cadence, snapping, simple drums, and sparse bass. His stickered and abused acoustic guitar shifts, with the step of a pedal, into a distorted, wailing electric beast on which Lewis delivers unexpected searing leads. The keyboards present in previous incarnations of the band have been largely lost, but they aren't missed too much as the wordy narratives have always the band's focal point. This was particularly true with "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror" – the compelling, arcing story of Lewis's encounter with the indie rock idol. The crowd stood with mouths agape listening to the tale like a class of third graders being read Harry Potter at the public library. Simply mesmerising.

Between bands there was a pointlessly long gap as an appropriately tattooed roadie in an AC/DC shirt and Boston Red Sox cap assembled and tuned the band's equipment, tested all the microphones, placed extra guitar picks on the microphone stands, and taped down set lists. Are Dr. Dog this big? The large tour bus parked in front of the venue would seem to say it is, or at least the band thinks it is. I just had no idea, but I was starting to figure it out.

The band drew a curious audience to The Bottleneck. There were indie rockers, along with a few bearded hipsters, but there were also a host of hippies and jam band fanatics. The latter groups spent the evening swaying to the band's music, while watching their own hands snake around in front of their faces. These same kids might be following The Dead if school were not in session, and, well, if Jerry were still alive. This is not my crowd. But this was definitely the right place for this crowd.

The Philly-based five-piece took the stage at about 10:15. Bassist Toby Leaman wore worn leather shoes, brown slacks, a white v-neck t-shirt, a stocking cap, and several weeks' worth of beard stubble. He carried a beer in one hand, and a mixed drink in the other. Guitarists Scott McMicken and Frank McElroy flanked Leamon on stage. McElroy is tall, and was only made taller by the "coon skin cap" – replete with flapping tail – that he wore. Like McMicken, he wore sunglasses throughout the night. McMicken's fedora was certainly a classier hat, and it seemed to breath better during the set. The key fact here, however, is that this is a band of guitarists in hats. The band's line-up was completed by flailing drummer Juston Stens, and the potentially miscast, subdued, and silent Zach Miller on keyboards. Vocal duties were handled by both Leaman and McMicken, with backing vocals coming from all directions.

Between the hopping and stomping McElroy, and the Joe Cocker-esque writing of Leaman the band put on a lively performance. Or, as one texter in front of me wrote, "Dr. Dog are pretty much killing Lawrence right now." It's true. The band's songs are well written, its execution tight, and its performance heartfelt. The audience was beaming, and the band fed off of this energy.

After a few sweaty songs, and a couple of slower, touching numbers, the band returned to the green room, leaving Scott McMicken to perform two songs solo – one very new and one (we were told) quite old. At the end of McMicken's second number, the rest of the band returned to the stage and played through another five or so songs to total an hour long set. After considerable cajoling from the audience, the band returned for an encore of "Fat Dog" – a old song, currently being reworked for the band's upcoming album. The song included a long middle section that allowed McMicken an opportunity to speak with the audience, and upon learning it was a fan's birthday, even sing "Happy Birthday" to her. The song and set ended in an explosion of frantic strumming that left both band and audience tired, stinky, and smiling. As for me, I left the show wondering if rock was really dead, as I had hypothesised only a week before, or if Dr. Dog might now be its sole survivor.