"I love a band where the singer is playing harmonica!," gushed a 40-something listener at a Moondoggies show last week. Kevin Murphy had only...

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“I love a band where the singer is playing harmonica!,” gushed a 40-something listener at a Moondoggies show last week.

Kevin Murphy had only busted out the harmonica for one song. Still, for the discerning listener, it was a clue to where this band’s soul lives — in ’60s and ’70s groups like the Band, the Grateful Dead and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.

Others in the crowd — some who weren’t even born when those bands were in their primes — were nodding and swaying and dancing and generally captivated by the Moondoggies, one of Seattle’s fastest-growing bands.

The Moondoggies recently signed with Sub Pop Records offshoot Hardly Art, then had the signing announced in Pitchfork, perhaps the most prestigious music Web site going. Last week, the Moondoggies were playing a Real Change benefit at the swank new club Sole Repair (across from Neumo’s on Capitol Hill).

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And that’s where the glamour comes to a full stop, for now at least. The Moondoggies return to their old haunt, that thoroughly glamourless — though not without a certain charm — dive-of-dives, the U District’s Blue Moon Tavern, where they play Saturday (10 p.m., no cover).

Though the overlap in names is coincidental, the Moondoggies have played the Blue Moon a half-dozen times in the past two years, and the band members are not against meeting at the tavern for beer and pool. Four of the five gathered for an interview on Monday night.

“All our friends like to come see us here,” said the sideburned, soft-spoken Murphy.

“People like free shows,” added the impish Robert Terreberry.

Keyboardist Caleb Quick took over the answer from there: “The best thing about this place is it feels uninhibited — free. It’s the place where people always dance the most, at our shows… “

“My grandparents used to come here,” tossed in drummer Carl Dahlen — gangling and wild-haired, like an ingenuous version of New York Dolls bass player Arthur “Killer” Kane.

Nicholas Davis wasn’t at the Blue Moon on this night, or he probably would have picked up the beat. The way they answer questions is not unlike their songs: democratic. It’s a far cry from most bands, which center on a singer-guitar player.

Formed by four graduates of Cascade High in Everett (Quick went to high school in nearby Bothell), the Moondoggies did start out as a tentative backing band for Murphy’s compositions. They sensed that harmonizing was the way to go, but the others at first were self-conscious about singing too loudly, or in the wrong parts. In the past two years, they’ve grown far more confident, both in their singing and musical layering.

“We all like to play minimalist,” said Quick, who sports a full beard and at 26 is the eldest Moondoggie, “but when it’s your turn, it’s your turn.”

The five minimalists together create a sound that is far from it. Live, they have a big, expansive sound — often starting modestly, but allowing the music to grow and fold back on itself hypnotically, then exploring tangential paths before looping back to a base camp.

They certainly jam, in a good way. But — please — don’t call them a jam band.

“It makes me think of Phish,” Terreberry said. “And then I want to vomit.”

“We don’t really jam on stage,” Murphy said, and the others started to agree with him (“String Cheese Incident!” Dahlen exclaimed, then giggled.) But then …

“We’re kind of a jam band during the week,” Quick said.

Live, though, there isn’t much improvising. The five-minute-plus epics are all carefully composed, the product of hours of practicing.

The Moondoggies have several different gears, sometimes within the same song.

“Want You to Know” is probably the Moondoggies’ best song, with a Band-like opening that instantly had fans at Sole Repair tapping their feet and bopping their heads. It developed like a Polaroid, slowly taking on more colors and brightness — Southern-style, country rock, with bold shifts and spiral-staircaselike progressions.

They are in the process of mastering their debut album, which they expect Hardly Art to release sometime this summer. At which point this band that hasn’t played outside of Washington will hit the road for its first tour.

Hardly Art continues to have a foot firmly planted in the ’60s, as previous Seattle signings Arthur & Yu and the Dutchess & the Duke both explore psychedelic folk of years gone past.

Tom Scanlon: tscanlon@seattletimes.com