About to celebrate their 25th year together, DC-area music favorites Cravin’ Dogs have good jobs, nice families, and oh yeah, a darn successful part-time band.
They’re about to release their ninth studio album of original material, and also have a live album recorded at the Black Cat in DC. They’ve played over a thousand live shows, warmed up superstars, and amassed a loyal and robust following in the DC metro area and even a bit beyond. They’re also about to celebrate 25 years of music together at a big anniversary show at the esteemed Barns of Wolf Trap on April 2nd. And for most of them, this isn’t even close to being their day job.
Cravin’ Dogs co-founder and percussionist Tom Helf spells out why that part-time strategy has seemed to work out so well for he and his fellow Dogs.
“It’s never been our livelihood. Because we’ve never relied on it for living, we’ve been able to relax a little bit, and play, and enjoy it. We feel very fortunate.”
For Cravin’ Dogs’, the last twenty five years has been a pretty darn good run, and it’s not showing any signs of stopping yet. Over the years, they’ve headlined at “almost every venue in and around DC”, and shared the stage with such national acts as Chuck Berry, The Dave Matthews Band, Styx, Cake, Aquarium Rescue Unit, and Gillian Welch. Their ninth release Sounds Like A Wiener is the band’s first full-length album of original material since their 2003 release, Roadtrip. It’s chock full of the same affable folk/roots-rock sound they are well known for, but the band also ventures into some crunching guitar-rock, calypso, and even some quirky piano-based pop. All in all, it’s another great achievement for this group of guys who met many moons ago and a quarter century later are still able to churn out music people really dig amidst the rigors of their “real” lives.
The band’s roots are a pretty familiar story, one many bands can also tell: some talented kids meet in or after college, they gel, and then they start playing music together. Who knew this collaboration would last 25 years and counting.
“Caldwell Gray [the band’s co-founder, guitarist and principal songwriter] and I both moved here to DC in 1983 after college, and we met through a mutual friend. When we started out, we kinda had similar influences probably on the jammier eclectic side of classic rock, we played a lot of Grateful Dead and Who when we were starting out as a band. We also like Richard Thompson, John Hiatt, kind of the rootsier artists, Bruce Hornsby. Caldwell’s actually been a longtime member of Bruce Hornsby’s production crew, and a couple of guys in his band play on (our) new CD.”
“Anyway, we started the band in 1986, it was Caldwell who played acoustic guitar, I played percussion, and Caldwell’s now sister-in-law Lisa Gray sang. We did a lot of covers of Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, the Grateful Dead, The db’s, The Who, kind of an eclectic mix…we called it ‘gonzo folk’, then Lisa and Caldwell’s brother [who is a songwriting collaborator to this day with Caldwell] moved to California in 1987, and Caldwell and I gradually became a rock band. We still did a lot of covers…the Dead, the Stones. Then [lead guitarist] John Penovich joined the band in 1990, we just met him through the music community, and then [fiddle player] Todd Baker joined the band in ’92, he knew John, and then [bass player] Barry Warsaw joined in 1995. He was just another kind of musical acquaintance.”
So how did Cravin’ Dogs evolve from a jammy “gonzo folk” cover band to having a strong base of original tunes? Evidently, Caldwell Gray writes some damn good songs, that’s how.
“Gradually, Caldwell started writing originals and probably by 1990 or ‘91, probably 40-50% of the material was original, and then by like ’93, we could do two sets of original music, and since then pretty much we’ve exclusively played our own music. I mean we have a bunch of covers we love to play that are fun, we do a few here and there, but we’re lucky to have a pretty rich back catalog of original stuff that we can choose from to make a good live show. Having played together, we kind of have an idea when Caldwell brings a song to the band of what it will ultimately sound like. People play parts that are complimentary to the ideas Caldwell is trying to put across.”
Other than Gray, who is currently the sound engineer at Strathmore, tours with Hornsby, and seems more like the career musician of the group (he also was mastering the new record the day Helf and I talked and couldn’t join us on the call), the members of Cravin’ Dogs have everyday jobs and lives, and use the band as that important creative outlet so many people strive to find but often never can.
“I’m an attorney, John is an electrical engineer by trade and he works at Radio Free Asia, Todd also works at Radio Free Asia, and Barry writes software code. Heh, we’ve got a buncha audio geeks in the band. We all have children, Todd’s are older, the rest of our kids range in age from 4 to 12. The kids come to the gigs, and know the songs. It’s kind of a nice thing to show your kids you’re cool, or at least trying to be cool.”
Cravin’ Dogs is one of those rare anomolies in music: a rock band that has actually stayed together and friends for 25 years, they still churn out well-played & written original material, and also have pretty regular lives. They’re an ongoing tribute to Everyman, or at least the Everyman who dreams of being a rock and roll star in his spare time.
“Again, I think part of it is not having the pressure of making a living, we have friends who are full-time musicians, and it’s really tough. For us, it’s worked out great. It’s fun to have a creative outlet and to do it with friends. It’s also really nice to look back and think, we created all this music. Over a hundred recorded songs that are our own, and that no one else does. That’s kinda cool.”
PS How did the band get the name Cravin’ Dogs? Helf explains. “Caldwell and Lisa had a conversation about wanting to have a dog after moving to DC, and Caldwell said to Lisa, ‘Man, you’re just cravin’ dogs”, and that was it, kind of a light went on.”
Steve Houk is a freelance music writer who lives in Annandale VA with his beautiful blended family. He is also living a midlife rocker’s dream as lead singer of Northern Virginia classic and modern rock cover band Second Wind, check them out here, as well as Steve’s blog, midliferocker.com.