Jacob Mahon & The Salty Dogs: Hoop Dog Style

by Richard Thomas

Camille Marsten and Jacob Mahon

Having seen Jacob Mahon’s band perform live, I am now a devout follower of the Church of the Salty Dog. (Not that such a church exists but if it did, I’d join.) As a recording artist, though, he’s more what might be called an acquired taste. His songs have a jolting anti-rhythm and his voice goes all over the map. He’s been compared to Tom Waits, but he also reminds me of Adam Sandler, veering from baby talk to bellowing. (I’d love to hear Mahon recite the line, “You get your ass out there and you find that f--king dog!”) There’s also some high-pitched trilling along the lines of Justin Hawkins of The Darkness. But Mahon is doing something other than the usual sensitive singer-songwriter stuff, and it’s anything but forgettable.

His debut solo album from 2018 is “Llamaless,” in which the signature tune is “Salty Dog.” Apparently he was laying the groundwork for this six-member band. Their music is as unusual as his solo work, with abrupt shifts in rhythms, impossible-to-follow melodies and vocals that go from growls to shrieks, filled in with drums, saxophones, multiple guitarists, female vocal backup and violin. Live, it’s genuinely exciting.

At the Dogs’ Feb. 6 show at Blush, the band worked the stage like prizefighters, swinging, dodging, landing solid punches, never predictable. Mahon, his trademark long hair sheared off, brought punk energy to the bluesy riffs. The audience hung onto every note, leaning in on the pauses just to hear him inhale. But even the crowd was a bit befuddled by the pace. At one point after a song ended there was silence, as everyone thought it was just another stop-start moment. 

The show was packed despite the higher-than-usual-for-a-local-band $10 cover, which the doorman apologetically requested. The cover charge included this five-song cd, “Hoop Dog Style,” a rather daring marketing plan, since the disc is intended to get heard, reheard and passed around. 

The first track, “Butt Rock,” opens with someone laughing, “You having fun?” followed by Mahon singing in repetition, “Rock and roll won’t wait for you.” Except for a few bars, the music is nothing like butt rock, e.g. Puddle of Mudd and Three Days Grace. And with all the changes — it feels like four or five songs stitched together like “Band on the Run” — we spend a lot of time waiting for the rock. Still it’s almost epic, running the gamut from folk to Queen-like opera. 

“New Salty Dog” is not a remake of his solo “Salty Dog,” which itself is connected only by name to the blues chestnut recorded by Leadbelly, Johnny Cash and countless others. The other versions are about sex, but in Mahon’s world, a salty dog could be an actual dog, his drive to write music, his personal demons, or all of the above. (The cover of “Llamaless” has a cartoon of Mahon happily playing guitar while an evil-looking shadow looms over him.)  Here he sings, “You’ve got to write the poem and get out of bed / No matter the hour, ‘cause you might forget … countless hours watching him wrestle the dark.”

“Brown Note” is a short (1:31) novelty with Mahon singing in a comically deep voice. (South Park fans will recognize the title as a sound that makes you lose control of your bowels.) In its brief time it manages to go from ragtime jazz to rock and then blend the two. “Why Does She Leave” is a slow-picking blues tune with harmonies. Neither of these songs are bad, but not likely to draw in the unconverted. 

The cd closes with “Done and Done,” a rousing jam in which all the earlier disparate elements — the shifts in rhythm, the wild vocal range, all the weirdness — hit their stride. It’s the one song on the disc that approaches the thrill of the live shows. So out of five tracks we have two interesting ones, two fillers and one killer. But maybe it’s just me. Mahon seems to be a perfectionist who knows exactly what he’s doing.

The band’s lineup includes Jacob’s brother Owen, Adam Skunch, Joseph Anderson and Camille Marsten. Veteran guitar master Richie Townsend is credited on the LP, though he says his contribution was minimal. 

“All I did was added a few guitar accents at very specific parts,” Townsend told the Reader. “Jacob called the songs up through headphones, went to the part he wanted me to hit a couple chords on, and then gestured like an orchestra conductor when to play. I didn’t even know the song, just the tiny pieces he wanted me to play. Jacob has a really clear vision of what he wants to convey. Music is in good hands with this generation.”

Jacob Mahon & The Salty Dogs perform 9 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 23 at Sir Benedict’s. See jacobmahon.com.