Mutts on the Move

A slimmed-down (read: eight-person) version of Poi Dog Pondering come to Tucson as part of a rare tour

The Chicago-based 10-piece musical ensemble Poi Dog Pondering take things at their own pace, releasing albums and touring about once every four years. Still, it might surprise you to hear that the last time the band graced a stage in Tucson, George Bush was president.

Thing is, it was George H. W. Bush, not Dubya.

Poi Dog have toured only three times since then, and their appearance at this weekend's Spring Club Crawl™ will be their first local stop in about 16 years. Bandleader Frank Orrall says the reasons for the infrequent tours are twofold.

"The first two records (Poi Dog Pondering and Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea) happened in pretty quick succession, just because the songs were all written," says Orrall. "And it just takes me a long time to write. That's why the records come so slow. And because of the cost factor, we can only tour every once in a while.

"We plan on changing that. My goal now is to buy a van, so I can tour a lot more often and easier, rather than try to save money to rent a van."

When they perform at Club Crawl™ this weekend, Poi Dog Pondering will appear in a slightly smaller version than usual.

"We're going out as a small eight-piece," Orrall laughs. "There's really 10 of us, but we're going out as eight, because we can all fit in the van." The notion of eight people crammed into one van, traveling across the country, is nothing new for the band, who busked their way across the United States in 1987.

Orrall began recording songs on his home four-track in the mid-'80s, in his native Hawaii, where he would play songs on the street with members of other local bands. Hence the name of the band: A "poi dog" is a mutt.

"A lot of people from a lot of different bands, we all used to go down and play on the street on Waikiki, just for fun, really," he explains. "I mean, we'd put a guitar case out, but wouldn't make much money--it wasn't really about that. We all had bands that we were playing in at night, but we really ended up enjoying the street thing and what we were kind of building together. We just decided one day, 'Fuck, this is fun. Let's go have an adventure on the mainland, and travel and play for gas money.'

"We busked for a full year, from Los Angeles to Canada down to border towns in Mexico and then finally to New York. ... We slept outdoors and on people's floors only," he laughs. "It was a fun trip."

Along the way, they scored a record contract with Los Angeles-based Texas Hotel records, which eventually released the band's debut album, before Columbia re-released it. The band settled in Austin to record that album in late 1987, and ended up staying there for about four years before relocating to Chicago. Members have come and gone over the years, but the band retains four of the members from those early days.

The group's sound has gotten bigger and a bit more experimental over the years, too. While those early albums combined a certain musical earthiness that appealed to fans of both college rock--as it was then called--and jam bands--as they're called today--underpinning it all was a certain wide-eyed charm that came courtesy largely of the charismatic Orrall. The band's lyrics often followed one of two themes: the joy in life's simple pleasures (think Jonathan Richman), and how to navigate life's difficult hurdles with grace. Those lyrical themes are largely intact on the band's more recent albums--including 7, which was released earlier this month on the band's own Platetectonic label--even if the band's sound over the years has incorporated elements of electronic music and dance-rock as well as full string and horn sections.

It's a mighty big, soulful and often dramatic sound that you certainly won't want to miss when Poi Dog Pondering takes the stage at Club Congress at Saturday night's Club Crawl™.

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