Headquartered in Charleston during the 1990s and 2000s, the Blue Dogs built a solid reputation as one of the most popular bands in South Carolina's Americana scene. Led by Bobby Houck and Hank Futch, the combo has specialized in a guitar-based, acoustic-leaning, highly melodic blend of traditional country, classic rock, folk-pop and bluegrass.
With drummer Greg Walker and a rotation of musical colleagues, Houck and Futch regularly front the Blue Dogs on stage around Charleston and the Southeast, performing at everything from outdoor festivals and major music venues to more intimate clubs, local fundraisers and rustic get-togethers.
On Saturday and Sunday, the Blue Dogs will return to the Charleston Music Hall for their second annual Homecoming show, designed as a double concert and fundraiser.
"Initially, everybody in the band and management team kind of winced at the 'Homecoming' moniker," says Houck, who handles acoustic rhythm guitar and most of the lead vocals for the band. "We were just calling it that for lack of a better term. For a while, we felt like we needed to come up with something more clever. But now I think calling it a homecoming is very appropriate because Charleston is our true home base."
This weekend's two-night stint follows the band's highly successful 25th anniversary "homecoming" concert held at the Charleston Music Hall on Dec. 29, 2013. This time around, the band has connected with the Medical University of South Carolina's Children's Hospital as a charity partner.
Funds raised from the two Music Hall shows and an additional Sunday morning "songwriter in the round" brunch event at 39 Rue de Jean will directly benefit MUSC's Children's Hospital rebuilding efforts.
"Organizations dealing with pediatric medical issues have always meant a great deal to us as a band, and we always have jumped at the chance to help," says bassist/ guitarist/singer Futch. "Bringing in the Children's Hospital, which is an amazing institution poised for a major expansion in the next five years, gives our event a worthy purpose and a goal. Put another way, it gives us a reason to have some fun and make some music with our friends."
Pediatric cancer has become a personal concern for Houck, as well.
"We've had friends who've gone through that, in particular Turner Simkins' family in Augusta, Georgia, Hootie & the Blowfish road tech Ford MacCabe's family, and a number of others," he says. "The Blue Dogs all got married and had kids over the last decade, and as fathers, it's really heart-wrenching to see friends' families go through something like this."
Houck originally put the Blue Dogs together in 1987 as an acoustic trio with classmates while attending Davidson College in North Carolina. By 1988, he'd hooked up with Futch, and the duo began writing songs and collaborating on renditions of classic country and bluegrass tunes. As they developed their own sound, they pulled from their favorite Southern rock, Appalachian folk music, old-school soul and country-blues tunes.
By the time they landed in Charleston during the early 1990s, they'd created a finely balanced mix of country and rock, powered by rich harmonies and anchored by a skillful rhythm section.
Over the years, the Blue Dogs recorded nine full-length albums and produced two concert DVDs. The band's latest studio album, 2004's "Halos & Good Buys" emphasized the Dogs' Southern-styled riffs, vocal arrangements and rhythmic grooves.
Over the last few years, each member of the Blues Dogs has settled into family life, but they frequently reconvene for weekend road trips, club dates and concerts around the region. It has been a long time since they've recorded new material in a studio for release, but there's currently plenty in the works.
"I feel like there's a best Blue Dogs song that's yet to be written," Houck says. "Sooner than later, we'll be getting back to our creative side and writing new tunes. I intend to finish some new song ideas and a few new projects early in the year. Musically, I think it'll be a great time for the band."
Billed as a 25th homecoming/anniversary celebration, last year's Blue Dogs show at the Music Hall took shape on short notice. To the surprise of the band, they pack the venue with friends, fans and musical pals with no problem.
"We've always looked for an annual event to develop," says Houck. "We considered doing a festival of some sort at one point, but it never happened. The plans for the 25th anniversary came together in October, just a month and a half before the date, so it was a short time between the announcement and the show. It was a little bit under the radar, but luckily a lot of fans caught on, and the show sold out."
Partly inspired by the Band's legendary all-star 1978 concert film "The Last Waltz," the Blue Dogs wanted to fill the stage with dozens of longtime allies and cohorts, creating a unique musical showcase that celebrated both the band's music and sense of community.
As an unannounced treat, Hootie & the Blowfish frontman-turned-country superstar Darius Rucker turned up to perform a surprise solo set that veered into a full Hootie session with bassist Dean Felber, drummer Jim Sonefeld and guitarist Mark Bryan. The foursome handled two Hootie hits, "Time" and "Hold My Hand."
Greenville-based veteran Edwin McCain chimed in during a portion of the show, too, singing the Dogs' "Rainbows Over My Blues" and part of "I'd Give Anything," as well as his own "Gramercy Park Hotel."
Nashville, Tenn.-based songsmith Radney Foster, a frequent songwriting collaborator with Houck and Futch, stepped on stage as the featured guest. Foster performed two songs that he co-wrote with Houck, "Half of My Mistakes" and "What's Wrong With Love Songs."
Other guests at the anniversary concert included local songsmiths Dan Lotti (of Dangermuffin), Danielle Howle, Doug Jones (of Cravin' Melon), and Wallace Mullinax (of the Dead 27s, Elise Testone Band). Two veteran Archetypes bandmates, singer Tommy Dew and guitarist Kevin Wadley, joined the Blue Dogs at one point, too. Mac Leaphart and John Satterfield, two South Carolinians who relocated to Nashville in 2012, performed as well.
Additional "Blue Dogs brethren, past and present" visited the stage, too. The roster featured Jason Hawthorn, Daren Shumaker, Jamie Harper, Charlie Thompson, John Fussell, Parker Dewitt, Buck Bradberry, Phillip Lammonds, David Stewart, Evans Nicholson and Scotty Price.
"It was like a class reunion," Futch says. "To have Edwin, Radney, Mark, the Hootie guys and everyone else joining in was incredible. And it was not our swan song, by any means."
"Right after last year's show, Charleston Music Hall director Charles Carmody told me he thought we could have easily played a second night and sold a few hundred more tickets," Houck says. "That was great to hear, and that led to us planning this two-night event for this week."
Moving into 2014 after the success of last December's big concert, Houck was inspired to develop the band's annual Charleston Homecoming shows in a similar vein to Gov't Mule/Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes' annual Christmas Jam, an all-star showcase based in Haynes' hometown of Asheville, N.C. Already in its 25th year, the Christmas Jam has established itself as one of the marquee annual music events in the Southeast.
Houck got vital encouragement from longtime concert production manager and top-shelf audio man Sandy Morgan, a revered veteran who worked for years with Hootie & the Blowfish, the Marshal Tucker Band, Gov't Mule and others.
"We really have to credit Sandy a lot for helping us put this year's homecoming event together" Houck says. "He has been the front-of-house sound engineer for Warren Haynes' Christmas Jam since day one. He's obviously very experienced in how a band can develop an annual event like this. Sandy said, 'I've been there, and I've watched this thing unfold, and this is what your event could be.' Warren started his event just for fun, and then it turned into a great tradition and a great way to raise money for charity. Sandy has encouraged us to make this bigger and to make it mean more than just being about us."
On Saturday and Sunday, Blue Dogs fans can expect a wide selection from the band's repertoire: funky country-rock "Walter," delicate acoustic ballad "I'd Give Anything," the twangy "Make Your Momma Proud," the love song/rocker "Isabelle," the bluesy number "The Way Back," the upbeat and harmony-heavy "Cosmic Cowboy," and many others.
Houck says there'll be a few super-deep cuts from the discography and a few surprises, as well.
An array of guests will hit the stage this weekend, including Pat McGee, Uncle Mingo, Doug Jones, Jupiter Coyote's Matthew Mayes and John Felty, Five Way Friday, Poppa Futch and Hail Futch (Hank's family), Phillip Lammonds, Sadler Vaden (of the Jason Isbell Band), Mac Leaphart, John Wesley Satterfield, Travis Allison, Bryson Jennings, Dave Dunning, Carroll Brown and more.
"Last year, we didn't finish the set list until sound check (on the day of the show)," Houck says with a laugh. "This year, we have so many guests doing so much material, I hope we can fit it all into the show. We'll be the house band for the majority of the night."
Whether the Blue Dogs' burgeoning Homecoming concert series turns into something resembling Warren Hayne's popular Christmas Jam or a recurring fundraising event with entirely unique personality of its own, it marks a healthy and optimistic move to focus on musical fellowship.
"I really like the idea that we are showcasing Charleston and South Carolina-based songwriters and musicians as well as special guest musicians from way out of town," Houck says. "It's also a great reason to get back together with all of the old Blue Dogs on stage - all of the former members and colleagues from over the years. Who knows where this might go and who might be involved."