I was going to write about the Cure this week, but I just saw the Lost Dogs perform an excellent live show, and I just don’t feel like being negative right now.
I find it difficult to explain what I love about the Lost Dogs, and I think it comes down to history. Part of the thrill of Scenic Routes, the Dogs’ debut, was hearing familiar voices in unfamiliar settings. Here was Derri Daugherty, he of swirl-rock pioneers The Choir, singing the acoustic folk title track with a high, clear tone. Here was Terry Taylor, leader of Beatlesque rockers Daniel Amos, taking on a lovely country ditty like “Amber Waves Goodbye.” Here was Mike Roe, voice and guitar hero of barnburners The 77s, lilting his way atop the acoustic “Smokescreen” and wailing through blues standard “You Gotta Move.”
And most of all, here was Gene Eugene, the big brain and sweet voice behind amazing funk-rock monolith Adam Again, bringing indescribable depth to melancholy ballads “The Fortunate Sons” and “The Last Testament of Angus Shane.” Eugene made just about as many albums with the Dogs as he did with Adam Again before he passed on in 2000, and his Dogs work shows a stunning versatility and range. That’s true for all of the Dogs, though. Here were four guys from four very different bands, none of whom had their roots in traditional American and gospel music, playing sweet folk and rollicking bluegrass and tender singalongs. Familiar voices in unfamiliar settings.
Of course, most people are unfamiliar with any of the Lost Dogs’ work, be it together or with their own bands, so that appeal is all but lost on them. Part of the thrill of watching the remaining trio slide comfortably into a rendition of “Wild Ride” is in knowing just how wild the ride has been. Taylor, all by himself, has taken us through the literate twang-pop of the first Daniel Amos albums through the new wave of the Alarma Chronicles, to the sarcastic fun of the Swirling Eddies, to the graceful variety of his many solo albums, and finally to Daniel Amos’ triumphant 33-song comeback, Mr. Buechner’s Dream, the best rock album nobody heard in 2000.
The other Dogs have had similar journeys, with similarly essential sets of albums to their names. And most of those are out of print (with the exception of the Choir’s oeuvre, which is collected in a lovely box set called Never Say Never) and extremely difficult to find. Taylor has begun re-releasing his work as well – the first Daniel Amos album comes out in a deluxe two-CD edition this month – but not enough of the obscure history of these bands is readily available for anyone not already into the Dogs to really understand what I’m talking about.
The boys themselves have now complicated matters a bit. What was once a side project has in many ways become the main gig for Taylor, Roe and Daugherty, with only occasional trips to the louder styles of their original bands. Problem is, there’s a rich backlog of excellent tunes that longtime fans want to hear done Lost Dogs style. These are songs, however, that the average newbie will not know, and will not be able to find.
The solution is called Mutt, the first in a series of Dogs records that will mine the back catalog of Daniel Amos, the Choir and the 77s. Here are nine songs (three from each member of the band) with rich histories, spanning more than 25 years, stripped to their essences and reinterpreted. To use an obvious analogy, this is the spiritual pop equivalent of the original Traveling Wilburys recording “Like a Rolling Stone,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Cryin’” and “My Sweet Lord.” In their own way, the Lost Dogs have that kind of musical legacy, even though only a few thousand people have heard their songs.
But what songs they are. Mutt is a fully successful project – the new versions of these songs are beautiful on their own, but if you know the originals, they take on new dimensions. It’s a good album for newbies, and a fascinating document for longtime fans. Six of the nine remakes here (there’s also a brand new song) are all but impossible to find in their original forms, unless you know where to look. As far as most newcomers are concerned (which includes much of the audience at the concert I attended), this is a set of 10 new songs.
But the fun of being a longtime fan lies in contrasting these new takes with old favorites. Mutt opens authoritatively with “If You Want To,” from Daniel Amos’ 1991 album Kalhoun. Gone is the familiar intro, and the song now begins with Mike Roe’s unadorned vocal. Naturally, the biggest change here (and in just about all the new takes) is the reliance on acoustic guitars, a Dogs trademark at this point, and the overall tone is mellow and breezy. “If You Want To” is scrappy and punchy in its original version, but here it glides along with great three-part harmonies and a light, airy feeling.
Taylor sings Roe’s “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life,” from the 77s’ 1986 self-titled record, and he turns what was a youthful rock song into a world-weary Dylan-esque folk tune. It’s an arrangement that brings out the heartfelt lyrics, about Roe’s self-destructive personality traits, and Taylor’s voice is perfect for it. This one works better for newcomers, though, since “The Lust…” is very well identified with Roe. Hearing someone else sing it is jarring at first, but it works. The same fate befalls “Sunshine Down,” Roe’s personal hymn from Say Your Prayers, sung here by Daugherty. The song is so Mike Roe that it’s difficult to associate it with Derri.
Of all the Choir’s songs, I would not have selected “Like a Cloud” for this record. It first appeared on Speckled Bird, the loudest of the Choir’s albums, as a brief moment of beauty amidst the clamor. I’m happy to discover that the Lost Dogs version rescues this sweet love song from obscurity and transforms it into the clearest winner here. The Dogs’ glorious three-part harmonies waft above the web of acoustic and electric guitars, and the extended ending is marvelous. Drummer and producer Steve Hindalong works his magic here on exotic percussion as well.
Many of these songs are not as significantly altered, however. Roe sings Taylor’s “Grace is the Smell of Rain,” from Daniel Amos’ wonderful Motorcycle album, but otherwise the arrangement is similar, if quieter. The Choir’s “To Cover You” is covered note for note here, even down to Daugherty’s lead vocal. And I now have five versions of “Beautiful Scandalous Night,” the most typically Christian song Daugherty and Hindalong have yet written, and none of them are all that different from the others. Hearing Roe sing it here is interesting, though.
There is one song that has been reworked from the ground up, though – “It’s So Sad,” which first appeared on the 77s’ 1982 debut Ping Pong Over the Abyss. What was once a synth-heavy ‘80s pop song is now a screaming rockabilly number, complete with a frantic and amazing electric solo by Roe. Watching him perform this one live on an acoustic is awesome – he never stops moving, yelping or tearing out light-speed guitar lines. Taylor and Daugherty can only stand and stare at him in disbelief.
The show I attended was held at Rock Creek Church in Derwood, Maryland. Rock Creek is just off of a major road that connects with I-95, but MapQuest took me 20 miles off course through the enchanted forest. Seriously, that’s what the road looks like – a heavily wooded path that’s barely large enough to allow two cars to pass unharmed, with insane twists and turns throughout. The church itself is quite nice, and nearly 170 people fit comfortably inside.
In my opinion, that’s a ridiculously low number, considering the sheer quality of the musicians onstage, but for the Dogs at this stage in their career, 170 people in a little church in Maryland is a very good turnout. And the Dogs put on a hell of a show. They have honed their cranky old men act to a Vaudeville sheen, gently pushing the boundaries of what passes for appropriate humor in a church. Roe and Taylor, especially, put on such a display of loving antagonism that newcomers might think they actually disliked each other.
The banter was only half the fun, though. The Dogs ran through nearly every song on Mutt, as well as a nice selection of their older material. The Mutt songs particularly came to life on stage, and I gained a new appreciation for “If You Want To” and the expansive “Like a Cloud.” The Dogs brought Steve Hindalong with them, and he played an impressive array of bizarre percussion instruments in his inimitable animated way. At one point he was shaking what appeared to be a child’s mobile in one hand and a woven straw purse in the other. This guy is so much fun to watch.
The spirit of reinvention that runs through Mutt was in evidence throughout the evening as well. The Lost Dogs are not known for shaking up their repertoire live, but here they debuted what they called a “medley of their hit” that found them opening up their arrangement skills. They also brought a revitalized energy to “Why is the Devil Red,” which just plain rocked. Hindalong especially brought the house down on this one, pounding away on a pair of kettle drums.
They played the one new song on Mutt, “I’m Setting You Free (But I’m Not Letting You Go),” late in the set. It’s a beautiful father-daughter ballad about letting your children grow up while still holding them close, and it joins a legion of Terry Taylor songs about growing older and wiser. The Lost Dogs have found a way to grow old together, both musically and personally, and they’re doing it with grace and a sense of fun. If this group is the final destination for Taylor, Daugherty and Roe, then it’s been a great ride getting here. And if you weren’t there the first time, Mutt and its (hopefully many) sequels will fill you in on what you’ve missed.
I can’t fail to mention Jeffrey K. of Lo-Fidelity Records, without whom Mutt wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Jeffrey puts his heart into everything he releases, and he only would work this hard for bands and artists he loves. You can get Mutt through Jeffrey at his website, and you can listen to clips from every song before you buy. He’s incredibly fast, too – if you’re ordering from within the U.S., you should have your CD in four or five days, tops.
Next week, the Cure for sure.
See you in line Tuesday morning.