My favorite memory of the Cavedogs goes back to a Los Angeles show in early ’92, at the now-defunct Sunset Strip hot spot Club Lingerie. The Boston trio were on a frustrating major-label tour, and various snafus had delayed their set until 45 minutes before closing, so they’d run overtime and the club was trying to hustle them off stage even as the audience yelled for an encore. The band came back on stage, picked up their instruments, and swore they’d play just "a quick one." And that’s exactly what they played: "A Quick One," by the Who. All 10 minutes of it.
This is the Cavedogs in a nutshell: a little bratty, but likable and talented enough to charm you anyway. They had the chutzpah to cover a touchstone tune like "A Quick One" and the pop smarts to pull it off.
It’s been exactly 10 years since the Cavedogs last played the Paradise, and that wasn’t the brightest of occasions. The band were broke, and they were all mad at one another. They’d just released an album on Capitol — Soul Martini — that they didn’t necessarily like, and conflicts with management, lawyers, and their label were piling up faster than the pop hooks that had made them one of Boston’s top acts. They got through the gig and then celebrated by breaking up. "It wasn’t the happiest place on earth," singer/guitarist Todd Spahr recalls. "I mainly remember a bunch of guys standing in front of me getting really drunk and excited. During the last encore I said ‘Fuck it’ and let them come on stage, and the whole audience wound up coming up with them. So at least it ended on a really good note."
Things should be different when the reconstituted band return to the Paradise this Friday. The legal battles are long over, and relationships among the three members — Spahr, bassist/singer Brian Stevens, and drummer/singer Mark Rivers — have been mended. They’ve just released an album that they do like, a limited-edition of leftovers and rarities called Fall Back in It that’s available at thecavedogs.com and will be on sale at the Paradise. And they can’t break up, since they’re not really back together. At the moment, each Cavedog lives in a different city — Rivers in Los Angeles, Stevens in New York, and Spahr in Boston, though he’s planning a move to LA himself. So this weekend’s show is planned as a one-off, to follow a reunion they played at the International Pop Overthrow in LA last summer. "It’s good to do the reunion show before you become too much of an old fart," Stevens says over the phone from New York, joking, "I should mention that we all weigh 300 pounds now."
To hear them tell it, the Cavedogs haven’t played Boston over the past decade because nobody ever asked them to. "I think my cousin wanted us to play again," Stevens allows. "Okay, there were a couple of people here and there who lamented our passing, but I didn’t experience too many people clamoring for the Cavedogs." During a separate phone conversation, Rivers elaborates, "It seemed silly to think anyone would care about us reuniting, at least for a while. But now we’re into a different era, and maybe people miss the late ’80s. So now they can take a trip back to the mullet era with us."
They were, however, a lot more important to the local scene than they’re willing to admit. The trio came along in the late ’80s, when big, loud rock was the rage (the Bags, Bullet LaVolta, and Slaughter Shack were all in their heyday) and local bands with Beatles/Who roots were in short supply. In fact, if you discount the few bands that did punk pop (Real Kids, Neighborhoods) and folk rock (Robin Lane), you could make the case that the Cavedogs were the first great, unabashed pop band that the Boston underground had. "We were always a little defensive about that," says Rivers. "We were the cute little pop group, but we could get loud and thrashy, too. So I think we had a bit of a complex: ‘Yeah, we’ve got these melodies and we do some harmonies, but look, we can fuckin’ rock, too!’ "
Their best songs — "Baba Ghanouj," "Bed of Nails," and "La La La," all on their 1990 Restless debut, Joyrides for Shut-Ins — were among the catchiest and cleverest to come out of Boston, then or since. Even the oft-maligned Soul Martini had a handful of gems that survived producer Michael Beinhorn’s layers of polish. According to Stevens, "If we’d done the album we’d originally pitched to Capitol" — in other words, a live-sounding album without the big-name producer — "then it would have been great." Adds Spahr, "I wouldn’t listen to that record for a long time, because making it was such a bad experience. I still like a lot of the songs. I just wish the guitar sound on the electric songs wasn’t so generic.
"That early period was probably our best. That first album sounds like hit after hit, because that’s what it is — five years’ worth of radio tapes." Another early trademark was the Cavedogs’ sense of humor. Many of the band’s friends worked the local comedy circuit, and that connection led to a series of "Cavedogs Funtime Hours" that aired on Emerson College’s commercial-free WERS-FM. The shows were a cross between the Monkees and Firesign Theatre (and excerpts are included on the new CD). "That was definitely a learning process," recalls Spahr. "On our first WERS show, our friends who did comedy would come on and do bits between the songs, and it wasn’t too good. We learned from that one and started using more of a formal script."
The humor would grow more irreverent when the band hit tougher times. Restless had gone bankrupt soon after sinking big money into a failed comeback album by David Cassidy, so the Cavedogs responded by having an announcer, at another LA show, bill them as "Hindenburg recording artists David Cassidy & the Cavedogs." When Capitol dropped them a couple years later, they played a New York show with "For Sale" signs around their necks. "If we hadn’t stopped around then, somebody would’ve gotten an ulcer," Rivers admits with a laugh.
But what really sank the band were internal disagreements about what to do after they’d been dropped by Capitol. Stevens had just gotten married, and he wanted to settle down; the other two were willing to hit the road until the next record deal came along. So they went their separate ways (though all three wound up recording in different capacities for the Q Division label). Stevens toured with Aimee Mann and released a solo album (Prettier Than You) with a lusher pop sound. Spahr and Rivers formed Merang, which sounded pretty much like a harder-rocking Cavedogs. That project fizzled quickly, yielding only one single, and Rivers went on to form Poundcake (with future Francine leader Clayton Scoble) before leaving town. Spahr now fronts the Gravy, who last year made a solid album (Lollipolyp) that’s been released only in Australia so far.
When the Cavedogs finally reunited last summer, they chose to play Los Angeles first and save Boston for later. And according to all three members, the West Coast show was more fun than many of their high-profile shows a decade earlier. "It was indescribably good, with no pressure at all," says Rivers. "I was worried either that it would be empty or that it would be too crowded and none of my friends would be able to get in. But the Troubadour was packed, everybody that wanted to be there got in, and it was one of those magical shows that bands have when they’re lucky. It’ll be a blast if the Paradise show is even half that good." Adds Stevens, "We’ll probably be more together at the Paradise. In LA I felt like we were a chamber orchestra, because we took 15 minutes between every song."
Although they admit there’s some temptation to keep the band going, they also concede that the Paradise may be their last last hurrah. "If someone asks us to open for the Stones, I’m sure we’ll consider it," says Spahr. "We’re not going to go out and do a big tour," Stevens counters. "Because one of us is bound to wind up dead with a prostitute and a lot of blow in Vegas."
THE CAVEDOGS’ SHOW will also mark a reunion of sorts for the opening band, the Gravel Pit, whose set will be their first and probably only show for 2002. They were feeling the fatigue when their last album, Mass. Avenue Freezeout, came out in 2001 on Q Division, and they went on hiatus soon after. "The rehearsals have been pretty funny so far," reports singer/keyboardist Jed Parish. "There’s been some songs where we all stare at each other like owls, trying to figure out what’s going on."
Parish has been playing with his solo band the Mother Tongues; the other three members — guitarist Lucky Jackson, bassist Ed Valauskas, and drummer Pete Caldes — are in the Gentlemen. "Being away from the band has made me appreciate the hard-rock thing more than I did," Parish says. "There were nights when I didn’t want to hear my skull ring, but now I’m ready for it."
Still, he admits that the band may not be ready for a full return just yet. "It’s the same as it was before the break — we’re just thinking about making this show sound good, and we’ll think about the rest later on. We don’t want to ruin the fun of the event by thinking seriously about what’s going on."