review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer | photos by Michael Todd
It was a grin so lopsided and sheepish that the stage lights glistened off John McCauley’s gold tooth and confessed he remembered at least something.
“The Waiting Room, was it?” offered the Deer Tick singer after guitarist Ian O’Neal sought the name of the venue they’d last played in Omaha. It could be the same way McCauley grins about all cities where his rock band took the stage before they cleaned up its act this past year. In May 2012, the debauchery du jour was an explosion of broken bottles, sore ears, McCauley willfully “getting iced” and giving a rather unsavory demonstration in the gential-guitar method.
If you walked into the Slowdown on Friday and saw only McCauley dressed in a full-body chicken costume, you might’ve assumed the crowd was in for something similar. But like the costume, all the absurd components of Deer Tick’s new tour would be superficial and premeditated.
They performed all 12 tracks from Negativity, chord-structure heavy rock songs more fuller-bodied than the razor-wire songs of the band’s War Elephant (2007) origins. The Deer Tick on stage Friday with a beaming and confident O’Neal and mostly platonic behavior from McCauley (no kissing his bandmates or remarks about masturbating) could hardly be imagined to plug into the joyful rage of their early work. And it stands to reason as the current story surrounding Deer Tick following them into every performance is one of recovery and rehabilitation. There were a few glasses of wine and beer bottles on the stage Friday, but intended only for throat lubricant or obligatory bar beverage. No shots. No palming an entire bottle of Patron. No cocaine, crack or heroin festering in the veins from a morning hangover remedy.
But it was actually the playing of the older material that cemented the new interior of the band. After opening the set with four songs from Negativity (“The Rock,” “The Curtain,” “Dream’s In The Ditch” and “Just Friends”), McCauley announced now that they had some of the new material “off (their) chests,” they’d do some old favorites. Hearing Deer Tick standards “Baltimore Blues No. 1” and “Main Street” was the first instance of the familiar and unfamiliar meeting, raising many questions.
The former is a song the band either almost always plays much faster or much slower than what’s on the record. On Friday, it was very near to the album version and all of the voice sinks at the end of verse phrases came easy for McCauley. It appeared that the band had almost relearned to play even their oldest songs crisper and more measured.
That’s not to say the frontman behaved dourly or soberly. Don’t forget he was dressed as a nearly 6-foot-tall poultry. In the verse of “Main Street” in which the singer cites a “stomped-on bag of blow” as ruining sinuses, he had the presence of mind to note that he couldn’t use his beak. He still executed a limber scissor kick off Dennis Ryan’s bass drum. When he flung his guitar behind him, during “Miss K” and shimmied, he appeared to have a fidgeting, turquoise tail. When introducing the song “In Our Time,” which he sings on the record with singer (and McCauley’s girlfriend) Vanessa Carlton, he had touchingly twisted words for his parents whose voices banter and confess in the song. McCauley declared his gratitude because without them he’d never have been born. Wait for it.
“And if I’d never been born, I never would have tasted beer,” he remarked, taking a modest swig of High Life.
As McCauley’s chicken suit atoned for the over-exposure of the 2012 Waiting Room show, the rest of the band celebrated Halloween a day late. Ryan ditched his hair metal wig halfway through the set because his drumsticks were getting caught in it. O’Neal and bassist Christopher Dale Ryan looked like a folksy take on Miami Vice’s Crockett and Tubbs.
When it came time to cut loose with the Divine Providence (2011) numbers that defined their last Omaha stop, including “The Bump” and “Let’s All Go To The Bar,” the wildness was present but calculated. And most of it was embodied in their bouncer/hypeman. Without the stomachs and bad habits to muster their own craziness, Deer Tick showed it had the means to outsource it.
The stagehand strummed a token acoustic guitar for all of one minute, bounced the same crowd-surfer from the stage three times though not before slow dancing with him with the final time. When Deer Tick finally exited the stage for good after 25 songs, he screamed (completely drowning out McCauley’s final remarks): “Give it up for Deer Tick, the best band in the whole fucking world!” He brought out the PBR cans from backstage to spray on the audience in the same planned way a stagehand unleashes balloons or confetti for an encore. Soggy and sloppy, but as precise as a lighting effect.
Opener Robert Ellis also played his part, crowd-surfing during “Let’s All Go To The Bar” and downright winning a guitar soloing contest with McCauley during a cover of “12 Bar Blues.” It was one of four covers, including “La Bamba,” Lou Reed’s “Hangin’ ‘Round” and Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You,” that seemed to keep Deer Tick lively throughout the night.
What survived, still dry, from the beer sprays and spits came an exhibition of skill we assume was always there but never noticed with so little obscurity. In May 2012, they didn’t play their instruments poorly, it’s just that no one paid any mind to whether fingers were landing on the right frets. With the rock ‘n’ roll insanity came distinct impression that from McCauley’s steel grinding voice on down the line that they registered with the audience so physically because they were living out the process of ruining their voices and bodies. There was a certain voyeuristic catharsis to be had there. But when it dawns in a new song like “Big House” that this is the way McCauley would sing a love song — or in this case an addiction hymn — in the privacy of his home, there’s a new kind of resonance. The roughness is a tool of the artist, not the clanging and gnashing of him squandering his tools.
One note of contingency. You would think that these steadier sets would open up the band to take advantage of some of their more intimate material, e.g. “Twenty Miles,” “Art Isn’t Real,” etc. Where Negativity resides on a louder, flatter line, the highs were higher and the lows were lower on the one song in that vein; “Ashamed” was the night’s most splendidly stripped number.
On a human level, it was gratifying not to see Deer Tick string themselves out for our pleasure. It’d be irresponsible to demand anything else. We’d need to ask ourselves if we want to experience Friday’s version of Deer Tick for another decade or 2012’s version for just a fiery moment.
There were still 25 songs. The central pit of moshers and headbangers appeared not to know the difference between McCauley leading the circus and simply acting as its choreographer.
It’d be unfair to call them sellouts, saints or suckups. What they are — perhaps for the very first time — is sustainable.
Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s staff writer. He would like to hire a hype man. However, he does not pay. Reach Chance at firstname.lastname@example.org.