Before the scraggly six-piece (with the exception of radiant singer/violinist Charity Rose Thielen) took the stage, it was clear from the bottleneck outside that this was no throw away add-on to the bill. The growing audience packed tightly into the performance hall and waited attentively, an unusual sight for a relatively unknown opener.
Once the moment finally arrived, the band eased into its set with a rich, three-part harmony — initially backed only by the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar — that slowly melded into a bouncy, rambling number that shifted between quiet whispers and epic swells for the better part of ten minutes. One had to wonder where The Head and the Heart could go from there, but, as if reading the collective mind of the crowd, it followed with a handful of the most uptempo offerings from its self-titled Sub Pop debut, securing the approval any remaining skeptics.
Shifting instruments and swapping lead vocal duties, the band kept the audience interested even through the latter half of the set, which saw a notable downturn in momentum. It was hard not to be charmed though, as members bounded around the stage, smiling from ear to ear with a sincerity more contagious than an outbreak of swine flu. The Head and the Heart are masters of optimistic folk-pop, heavy on the tambourine, heavy on the organ, and a perfect fit for a feel-good crowd favorite like Dr. Dog.
After a short break, Dr. Dog appeared to the tune of Bob Dylan's "Wigwam" and was greeted with thunderous applause from the near-capacity crowd, many of whom began dancing before the band had struck their first note. Like its tour-mates, the Philadelphia quintet came out swinging, giving the premature dancers some real fodder for their dips and sways with a handful of free-wheeling, heavily percussive tracks like "Hang On" and "Unbearable Why." But even the band's slower numbers (i.e. "The Breeze") had an irresistible groove and unwavering momentum that kept the heaviest feet tapping along.
Obviously, there were plenty of distractions about, but those watching closely may have noticed a sixth member shaking bells and singing harmonies at the back of the stage, Floating Action's Seth Kauffman. The Asheville multi-instrumentalist recently recorded an unreleased track for singer/guitarist Scott McMicken's "Shaking Through" video series, and the part-time producer was apparently impressed enough to invite Kauffman to join Dr. Dog for their entire set, even covering Floating Action's "Don't Stop (Loving Me Now)" in the encore (Kauffman handled guitar and lead vocal duties for that number).
Throughout the remainder of night, Dr. Dog kept the room in a constant state of movement with infectious numbers like "I Only Wear Blue," "Worst Trip" and a cover of Architecture in Helsinki's "Heart It Races," providing a template for the crowd with their own reckless abandon onstage. Finally ending its set with a four-song encore, Dr. Dog bid Asheville farewell with the crowd pleasing nostalgia of "Jackie Wants a Black Eye."
It's easy to see why this band has such a dedicated following, and how, in the span of a year, it went from playing The Grey Eagle to nearly selling out The Orange Peel. Dr. Dog occupies an unusual space in modern music, somewhere between the seemingly contradictory worlds of indie and jam (there were plenty of extended guitar solos), but that's beside the point. Dr. Dog is fun above all else, and having fun has always been and always will be universal.