The best thing about attending a Deer Tick show, or at least the most initially striking aspect, is no longer having to wonder if John McCauley is an a**hole.
Intentionally or otherwise, McCauley has succeeded in creating at least some level of public a-hole myth. It could be that he just doesn’t appreciate the baggage that comes with spending a healthy chunk of his life in front of a microphone. Could be he’s a clever self-promoter. Could be a bit of both. Or it could be that he really doesn’t, as he often suggests, give a sh*t. Whatever the case, there is virtually no way to approach a live McCauley sighting without wondering which of the above is true, and half expecting him to spit on somebody within the hour.
Thus, the pleasant nature of the three-song mini-set (“Ashamed”/”The Bump”/”Easy”) that opened Deer Tick’s First Avenue Show last Thursday. In the space of few minutes, the myth, the noise, and the speculation were consigned to the background, as Deer Tick’s reason for existence came to the fore: real songwriting and stage chops, and charm for days. Debate ‘til the sun comes up whether you’d want to leave the club with them, but onstage leading the choir, while you man your drink, is where these dudes belong.
That opening trifecta was also (likely with some intention) a casual display of Deer Tick’s range. While “The Bump” openly celebrates/mocks bar-hopping immaturity (literally goading the crowd to raise its beers to “act like kids”), “Ashamed” and “Easy” touch on a sides of the songwriting that are alternately reflective and broken-hearted, or bitter and foreboding.
The Deer Tick catalog, and the show itself, bear out that ratio. McCauley and friends may look like they’ve been drinking, but for every number that begs of chorus line of shot-downing Peter Pans, there are two or three that resonate with fallen ideals, regret, and self-doubt. The floor around these guys may be littered with empties, but they aren’t being thrown at anybody. When McCauley sings “Yeah, I guess I’m scared/Every time I care,” he’s not giving anybody the finger but himself.
What all Deer Tick Songs have in common, though, whether channeling blues, country, or straight barroom rock, is an open invitation to sing along. Deer Tick backers oft gravitate toward the fact that Tick buck the stylistic trends and speak to the traditionalist or the rockist or whoever might care about such things, but if there is a tradition being upheld, it seems to be that of making no stylistic statement at all. Deer Tick songs, onstage, seem built entirely on the story they were written to tell, the instruments rendered merely vessels. Even the modern incarnation of the singer-songwriter (Andrew Bird comes to mind) seems still to have an aesthetic agenda. And yet here is the man and the band with the seemingly cultivated drunken bad boy rep, selling nothing more than articulate and infectious invitations of “life is sad, life makes me mad, lets get a f*cking drink.” Last I checked, you had to cross an ocean and enter a real Irish pub for that experience.
It makes sense, from that perspective, that Deer Tick is so fond of playing covers, and of course could not leave First Avenue without a nod to the Replacements (“Kiss Me On The Bus”). Then they brought the house down, in tribute to the recently deceased MCA, with the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right (To Party).” By that time, though, they had already more than convinced this club full of Minnesotans that they are indeed the guys you want to have a beer with; that they don’t have beautiful, advanced degree-toting girlfriends, that there is always a seat on their couch and a bad movie on their television, and that they’ll give you a hard time but the door is always open and the PBR is usually cold.
Reputations may exist, but there is an undeniable amount of regular humanity coming off that stage, a lot of love being thrown back toward it, and an appreciable lack of space between the two. Maybe McCauley and friends are no more than Providence, RI’s finest minstrels, a tad rough around the edges, but so effing what.
Then, of course, Deer Tick closed the show with the raucous, obvious-but-that’s-the-whole-point “Let’s All Go To The Bar,” and McCauley pulled down his pants, whipped his dong out, and while the Turbo Fruits’ Jonas Stein held his guitar for him, slapped out a few guitar licks with it.
Back to square one.