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In the music spotlight: Dr. Dog

BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Soulful Philadelphia indie-rockers Dr. Dog are a grassroots phenomenon and case study in quality and persistence. The sextet’s slow, steady rise over 16 years has been accomplished without an excess of industry support, relying instead upon a work ethic that undercuts the fantasy of the rock and roll lifestyle. The band has been on the road since the New Year with scarcely a break to do laundry. “We’re on the road every year for half the year,” says bassist Toby Leaman. “But we know how to do it.”

Dr. Dog’s intuitive and bohemian blend traces threads to classic acts including Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Band and the Beach Boys, while remaining electrifying and fresh. The band is often named alongside like-minded, diligent roots acts including Dawes and Philadelphia’s recently shelved Walkmen.

“I’d put Wilco in that camp, too,” says Leaman, who saw a boost when Dr. Dog opened for Chicago’s local heroes at Millennium Park in 2007. “They’ve had hard-earned success, but not monster success.”

Although proud of the band’s studio work, Leaman thinks Dr. Dog’s new double album “Live at a Flamingo Hotel” captures an important component of what makes it tick. “It’s a totally different way of playing, at least for us,” he says. “When you make an album, you’re figuring out the songs as you’re recording. For the live album, we’ve known some of these songs for ten years, a hundred nights a year.”

Leaman and guitarist Scott McMicken are Dr. Dog’s principal songwriters. The live album represents a broad cross-section of the pair’s strengths, elevated by the seasoned band’s versatility. “That Old Black Hole” features McMicken’s savvy wordplay in a rapid succession of contradictory couplets. “Lonesome” displays Leaman’s classic heartbreak-song chops. “What does it take to be lonesome,” he sings during the rootsy, front-porch ramble. The answer follows like an Appalachian Zen riddle, “nothing at all.” “That one’s a study of [Hank Williams’] ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’” says Leaman. “It’s got the whippoorwill, the train and the moon.”

Leaman doesn’t seem like someone who is eager for down time. After four months of heavy traveling including three Chicago dates this weekend, Dr. Dog plans to complete the long-dormant concept of debut project “Psychedelic Swamp.” “That album was always supposed to have a partner,” he says. “The concept was that this other album was actually the greatest pop album of all time. We’ll go back into the studio in May and June and bang it out.”

* Dr. Dog, with mewithoutYou, Apr. 10, Thalia Hall, 1807 S Allport, SOLD OUT, (312) 526-3851; thaliahallchicago.com. Apr. 11-12, House of Blues, 329 N Dearborn, Tickets $27.50 (17+over), (312) 923-2000; houseofblues.com/Chicago.

Jeff Elbel is a local free-lance writer. Email: elbel.jeff@gmail.com