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Cravin’ Dogs have been refining their textured pop-rock sound for about 14 years, which is about as long as the D.C. band’s drummer, Tom Helf, has been refining his finance- and real estate-based law practice. This Friday the Dogs will celebrate their centennial — in dog years, naturally — with a performance at the State Theater in Falls Church, Va. The benefits of spending such a long time together are evident on “Roots Rock Paper Scissors,” the CD the Cravin’ Dogs released earlier this year. As the title of the CD suggests, the band’s music is an amalgam of rock, country, and pop sounds, blended very smoothly by years of performing together up and down the mid-Atlantic. The longing in lead singer Caldwell Gray’s voice brings to life the reflective, often humorous lyrics in the original tunes, one of which celebrates the immortality of Frank Lloyd Wright, while several others are centered around the usual — relationships, road trips, and ageless knuckle-baller Hoyt Wilhelm. The musicianship from Helf’s solid drum work on up sets a tone of easy grace, even when the boys dig in on the more hard-edged material. Helf first sat in with the band — on bongos — on the night of the very day he had taken the Maryland Bar exam. They were playing the now-defunct coffeehouse Food for Thought in Dupont Circle in D.C. After a few personnel changes, the band gained more of a rock edge and began recording the first of its six CDs in the late 1980s. Helf, meanwhile, has developed a commercial lending practice, often on behalf of banks. When the market is good, it’s loan origination and other work as lender’s counsel, he says. When it’s bad, it’s workouts and foreclosures. Helf spent several years at the McLean, Va., firm known most recently as Stauffer, Rommel, Decker & Dulany, which was just bought by Houston-based Bracewell & Patterson. He set up his own practice in Bethesda a little more than a year ago. Joining the Cravin’ Dogs on stage at the State Theater will be Doug Derryberry, a member of the Bruce Hornsby band who has long served as the Dogs’ producer. He will play keyboards and mandolin. The headlining group will be the folk-rock band Cecilia, while the country-flavored Last Train Home is also on the bill. In honor of playing 100 dog years of music, Helf agreed to an interview, conducted via e-mail. Q: First, the important stuff. Do you put your law clients on the guest list for your shows? A: It depends on whether or not their bill is current. Actually, most clients whom I have invited tend to favor the free outdoor concerts where they can bring their families as opposed to the noisy, smoky club dates. Q: Please explain the name of the band. A: The name sprung from a conversation in 1986 between co-founders Caldwell Gray and Lisa Venable, during which Lisa was bemoaning the fact that she didn’t have a dog and told Caldwell she was “cravin’ dogs.” … Unfortunately, our name is often misspelled “craven dogs,” and it bothers me that people may think I’m affiliated with a band that is cowardly or weak-hearted. Q: How is beating on the skin of a drum over and over and over again similar to working with clients or explaining things to judges? A: Actually, it’s not the repeated hitting of a drum head that evokes similarities; rather, it is the volume with which the head is beaten that provides a useful analogy. For example, sometimes a tune will call for brushes and low volume — a situation akin to the client who needs a lot of handholding and wishes to be treated with kid gloves. On the other hand, some songs demand a lot of loud cymbal crashes and drum fills — a situation akin to the occasional loud argument with a client. In this regard, I would recommend a pair of size 2B drumsticks for any attorney who needs assistance in keeping a client in line. Q: Describe a few career highlights. A: Opening for Styx at Merriweather Post Pavilion [in Maryland]. The gig was the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. … The exhilaration of playing in front of 6,000 people helped me overcome the frustration of sitting in traffic for two hours trying to get to Merriweather from Tysons Corner [Virginia]. We also opened for Chuck Berry in Richmond [Virginia] at the Mosque Theater. Q: Describe a few career lowlights. A: Any weekday out-of-town, one off gig that required me to drive all night to be back at work the following morning. I need both hands to count the Thursday night gigs I’ve played in North Carolina, which were noteworthy for giving me the opportunity to experience both the afternoon and morning rush hours on Route 95 without any sleep in between. Q: Drummers have to spend more time setting up and breaking down their equipment than anybody else. Do you ever wish you were a harmonica player? A: Never. I love being the backbone of the band. Q: How serious is the problem with groupies? A: Not serious enough, I’m afraid. Most of our fans are the ones who need to arrange for baby-sitters before coming to a gig. I actually met my wife at a gig, but that was a pre-arranged introduction. Q: Napster, Gnutella, MP3. Pro or con? A: Definitely pro. Even though Cravin’ Dogs want to make money from CD sales, we have our whole six-album discography available online in MP3 format. We are like most independent, unsigned musicians in that we want to have our music reach as many people as possible. It is absolute hypocrisy for the record companies to claim that Napster is “stealing,” when the record companies have been stealing from artists for years. For example, the typical record contract may pay artists a royalty rate of 13 percent, and the money that is advanced by the record companies for manufacturing, advertising, etc. is not repaid dollar-for-dollar — it’s repaid from the artist’s 13 percent share. Not fair if you ask me. And shame on the record companies for not taking steps to ensure that CDs cannot be downloaded or digitally copied. And shame on Lars Ulrich, the multimillionaire drummer for consummate anti-establishment rockers Metallica, for toeing the record company line. And, and … I’ll get off of my soapbox now. Q: First concert you ever attended? A: Deep Purple, Savoy Brown, and the Pretty Things at the Syracuse War Memorial in 1973. The guys in my junior high rock band and I went together. Unfortunately, the guitar player’s mother, who was tasked with car pool duties for the ride home, insisted on picking us up at 10:30, which meant that we heard only one Deep Purple song. We reacted as any group of mature 12-year-olds would. … We kicked the guitar player out of the band. Q: First record you ever bought? A: The first album I bought with my own money was “Abbey Road,” which, based on a 25 cents per week allowance, was a big purchase. Q: Person you most blame/credit for your life’s work as a musician? A: I would have to say my junior high school band director, who was very enthusiastic and supportive. Q: Person you most blame/credit for your life’s work as an attorney? A: Probably my senior high school band director, who took my musician friends and me aside one day and told us he’d kill us if we decided to go into music full time, insisting that it was a frustrating way to try to make a living and that our grades were good enough to allow us to engage in more worthwhile endeavors. I was offered the opportunity, during the summer between college and law school, to play in a full-time rock band in Syracuse. I liked the band and figured that I would have a talk with my dad and broach the topic of taking a year off to play music. When I told him my idea at breakfast the following morning, he looked up from his bowl of Special K and glared at me. I then decided that I would be attending law school that fall after all. Of course, it didn’t help that the name of the band was Porcelain Forehead. Q: Final thoughts? A: Well, I’m glad I have both music and law in my life. There is one famous antecedent: I believe the mid-20th century classical composer Charles Ives never gave up his day job with an insurance company. I find that the two activities reinforce each other. When I’ve driven eight hours on a round trip to play one 45-minute set, and the band makes a total of $100, I appreciate the day gig practicing law. When I’m at a loan closing, and borrower’s counsel throws a tantrum because some innocuous condemnation provision doesn’t jibe with the tenets of Strunk and White, I appreciate having a hobby where I can hit something. In sum, I tell people that rock drumming is my golf, except that, instead of hearing people yell, “Fore,” I hear them yell, “Free Bird.”

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