Deer Tick: Takin’ Care of Business
Rock n roll has become a very serious business. It seems that everywhere I turn these days Bono is shaking hands with diplomats from ravaged overseas countries and telling me that buying things dipped in red dye will help find a cure for AIDS. Last month at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, I was the recipient of one of Steve Earle’s famous between songs diatribes on why I’m not doing enough for post-Katrina New Orleans. While there is no doubt in my mind that music has the ability to inspire change in the world and while I would never dismiss anyone for their philanthropic callings, sometimes I feel I must ask: where has all the FUN gone in rock n roll? Between all the causes and all the bands that act like they’re doing you a favor by being up in front of you, where is a girl to go to shake some ass and have some fun far from the CNN headlines and shoegazers? Where have all the rock stars gone? The ones who appreciate an American Spirit as the breakfast of champions, a hangover as proof that the previous night’s show was a success and, above all, walk the fine line between great art and irresponsibility. Never fear my friends, these men do indeed still walk among us. Salvation thy name is Deer Tick.
Frontman/singer-songwriter of Deer Tick, John McCauley, is a rock star’s rock star. When Rolling Stone asked him to document the band’s experience at Lollapalooza earlier this year, they ended up with footage of a hotel closet on fire, love letters sent from a urinal, and a salad getting its ass kicked.
All in all McCauley is an homage to the rock stars of yore; the ones who were unafraid to get drunk, wreak havoc on a hotel room, and have a sweaty good time onstage. So when I heard that Deer Tick would be in Portland at the Crystal Ballroom last week I had to go and check them out. Quite simply, the show was refreshing because it was just… fun. McCauley entered the stage in true American rock star style: guitar slung over the back to better carry three beers and asking the crowd for the final score of the baseball game. After it was firmly established that the Phillies had won, the band launched into the doo wop Platters-like melancholy of “Choir of Angels,” the first track off of their latest release The Black Dirt Sessions. From there, the band delivered a broad range of dirty rock n roll and sentimental crooning interspersed with some of their favorite covers. In fact, it was the band’s range of style that struck me the most about their live show. Though McCauley’s voice could best be described as Liam Gallagher after a weeklong battle with a bottle of whiskey and a cheese grater, it is surprisingly smooth. At several points throughout the show McCauley ditched his guitar or was left solo onstage to let his gravelly, yet balladeer type voice, shine through. Songs like “Diamond Ring 2007” brought to mind Tony Bennett in a thrift store t-shirt.
The room then filled with shrill screams as McCauley introduced “Cake & Eggs.” A John Priney sing-along ballad dedicated, as McCauley described, “to oral sex.” What gal doesn’t like a good folk inspired ode to lady pleasure? Things got even dirtier as the band brought out many of the songs that have helped to define their gritty indie country sound. “These Old Shoes” and “Baltimore Blues” set even the most stoical hipsters in the crowd to dancing and singing. Several new songs were also showcased, many of them sung by lead guitarist and former Titus Andronicus member Ian O’Neill. Ian’s mellow harmonies were a perfect contrast to McCauley’s guttural sneer. Destined to be new favorites, songs like “Bury Deep” and “Now It’s Your Turn” were perfect pieces of pop, a slight departure for the band and reminiscent of old Fountains of Wayne records. Lastly, known for paying their respects to the classics, the band laid their hands to many rock n roll standards. Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care Of Business” received a more than worthy cover leading me to believe that Deer Tick’s live shows, in McCauley’s words, “tend to go a bit haywire” in the best possible way. The rowdiest and best part of the night however came with the band’s encore. A beer and Jack soaked, Last Waltz style tribute to The Band and Ritchie Valens for which the boys appropriately enlisted the help of raucous opening act J. Roddy Walston and The Business (see vid below).
Overall, Deer Tick’s live show is proof that the separation of stage and pulpit is still very much intact. All of this good time rock n roll should not detract from the legitimacy of McCauley and Co. as a band however. Both War Elephant and Born On Flag Day are must haves for anyone with an interest in the direction of alternative country/indie rock and the band’s most recent release, The Black Dirt Sessions, has been in heavy rotation on my iPod for months. It’s a heart wrenchingly mature third album for the band and showcases McCauley’s knack for beautiful lyrics and spare melodies in addition to the country-tinged rock that characterized the band’s first two albums. If you don’t own any of these albums yet, do yourself a favor. Go buy yourself an early Christmas present and rest assured that Deer Tick is a band that can take care of the real business behind rock n roll.