It was a Saturday night, and only the best get to play Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern during North By Northeast, Canada’s biggest independent music festival. Most of the revelers were jammed in there to catch a glimpse of The Golden Dogs, and they were willing to wait nearly four hours to see them. At 1 a.m., the Toronto five-piece band hit the stage and the crowd erupted. Wild fist pumps, unrestrained screaming, erratic dancing – you couldn’t help but wonder what the hell was going on?
Contrary to a few people’s beliefs, The Golden Dogs’ devotees hadn’t gone insane – it was the band that was off their rockers. The Dogs launched into “Birdsong” and immediately set the place on fire. Lead singer and guitarist Dave Azzolini furiously attacked his axe, destroying strings in the process. His wife and keyboardist Jessica Grassia repeatedly smashed her keys with her fists while head banging to drummer Taylor Knox’s thunderous beats. Guitarist Neil Quin unleashed a bevy of blazing solos, and all the while bassist Stew Heyduk kept the rhythm in check.
The ‘shoe was buzzing - even a few inebriated frat kids at the back were shaking their asses, but things were just getting started. Dave’s face was dripping with sweat, Jess’ hair was sticking to her face and the audience was singing – no, screaming – along to almost every lyric. To cap this chaotic night off, the band played their incendiary cover of Paul McCartney’s “1985” and set closer “Yeah!”. During that song, as Jess pounded her keys over and over again, Dave disappeared. It was a little strange – had he had enough? Were things too out of control? The music kept going, though, and the crowd was still frenzied. Without warning the lanky lead singer stormed the stage, but he wasn’t wearing the blue blazer he started off with – he donned an outlandish, brown furry jacket that made him look like a starved Sasquatch.
For some that night, this would have been a pretty messed up show, but those familiar with The Golden Dogs know performing a high flying set is their calling card.
Fortunately, their manic energy isn’t limited to the stage. On their new record, Big Eye Little Eye, the band takes all that shambolic vigour and lays it down on disc. It’s impossible not to stomp your foot to the frantic opener, “Dynamo,” and it’s even harder to avoid shouting along to the choruses of first single “Never Meant Any Harm” and “Saints At The Gates,” a passionate track about playing live. If you’re not in the mood to air guitar, don’t worry, Big Eye Little Eye, which some critics are already calling the best disc of the year, has more to offer than just intensity. Intimate moments like the stripped down “Wheel Of Fortune,” the only song not recorded in the studio, puts listeners in Dave and Jess’ basement, while Theresa’s Beach Boys-style vocals is a touching tribute to one of the bands’ heroes, Brian Wilson.
On Big Eye Little Eye, it looks like The Golden Dogs have done everything right. And thank God, because the group almost didn’t make it this far.
It all started back in the summer of 1998 in Thunder Bay, the small northern Ontario city where Dave and Jess grew up. They met and played in a band together for a few months. Problem though: Dave was about to move to Toronto to form a band of his own and Jess was just starting university.
“For three years Jess was a voice on the phone,” says Dave smiling as he looks over at his wife. As Jess worked and traveled to Toronto whenever she could, Dave was writing what would become The Golden Dogs’ first EP. She’d eventually move to Toronto, and join The Dogs, who were just starting to play gigs around Toronto. But while Dave and Jess’ relationship solidified, their band was in constant flux, as band members kept coming and going. Somehow they managed to release a second EP. Soon after, True North Records came calling and things started looking up. The band re-released their two EPs on one critically acclaimed record, Everything In 3 Parts. They then opened for seminal bands such as Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party and The Libertines, got their performance at SXSW in Austin mentioned in the New York Times, were invited to showcase at Popkomm in Berlin and even had “Birdsong” appear in Douglas Coupland’s film Everything’s Gone Green.
Naturally, the group was anxious to record a follow-up, so they teamed up with Paul Aucoin, a prolific producer (The Old Soul/the Heavy Blinkers/Cuff the Duke) and founder of the instrumental pop group The Hylozoists, and headed into a bonafide studio for the first time. But, before they started recording, fate would find a way to screw the band again. Their drummer, Beau Stocker, was accepted to school in England two weeks before recording was scheduled to start and left the band. Faced with a major crisis, Knox, who was then the bassist, volunteered to drum. After a couple days of running through the songs, it turned out that Knox was more than proficient, both in the studio and live. In a lot of ways, according to Azzolini and Grassia, Knox’s energy and enthusiasm on the skins helped bring the band to a whole new level. Listen to the rapid snare hits on “Construction Worker” or the wild insanity on “Life on the Line” and you’ll see that life as a Golden Dog is just fine.
And that brings us back to the Horseshoe. With a concrete line-up for the first time, a batch of new songs under their belts and an adoring audience hanging on The Golden Dogs’ every word, the band has never looked better. During their raucous set they jumped effortlessly off amps, completed blistering solos without missing a note, and belted out harmonies like they were veteran rockers. When the show ended the crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief. Any more music and the hundreds of fans would have easily dehydrated, or maybe hyperventilated. As every good band does, The Dogs left their fans wanting more, and on August 15, when Big Eye Little Eye hits stores, they’re going to get a lot more than they bargained for.