CAMBRIDGE - Wheeling a rock band around from place to place requires no small expenditure of energy and imagination on its own. But conjuring a backwoods psychedelic landscape from thin air and plopping it square in the center of a new city night after night is an entirely different matter altogether.
Consider it, then, a testament to the transformative power of the music of Philadelphia's Dr. Dog, whose urban pastoral sketches manage just that. And this is before we even get to the sense of temporal displacement their songs engender.
Both styles of thaumaturgy were in the able band's employ on Friday night when they rolled a rickety wagon load of backward-looking, forward-thinking '60s soul pop and sunburned country into the Middle East Downstairs.
With their sharply disheveled, sunglasses-and-fedora-cowboy chic and charming, bow-legged, toe-tapping dance moves, band members rode a heady charge of pulsing organ and blasé synth brass on songs like "Worst Trip." Through the practiced art of pitch perfect imperfection, they spun feedback and harmony outward in kaleidoscopic wheels of sound.
The adoring (and extraordinarily pungent) sold-out crowd was captivated, a receptive congregation eager to be saved, and co-leads Toby Leaman on bass and Scott McMicken on guitar played the role of spirited preacher man with aplomb. Meanwhile the rest of the band sprinkled the room with a virtual bibliography of retrofitted musical motifs like handfuls of magic beans that twisted and gnarled as they thickened into dense vines of psychedelia.
Liberally embellishing songs with multipart harmonies, time-capsule guitar tones, and roiling keyboard punch as on the rousing "Ain't It Strange," Dr. Dog smuggled the burning spark of the Beatles' "White Album" eclecticism across the expanse of time and space. At other points the group pounded out a hurricane of '70s-era stadium funk; devolved into snazzy, screamy freak-outs; or flirted with blatant "Hey Jude"-isms on numbers like the crowd-pleasing "From."
San Diego's Delta Spirit impressed with a set of bluesy, soulful Americana, all chiming, pretty anthems that hinged on big dangling chord changes and forceful instrumentation. Most songs worked up to a feverish gallop while singer Matthew Vasquez ripped his way to the fore with a tortured but tuneful wail that suggested a young Dylan screaming himself hoarse. It was easy to see why these two history-mining bands worked so well together.