review and photos by Ryan Bort
In the interest of full disclosure I feel like I should preface this by letting it be known that I drank more than a small amount of whiskey before and during the Deer Tick show at the Tractor Tavern in Ballard on Thursday. There are sizable gaps in my recollection of the set list, it was near impossible for me to discern any coherence from front man extraordinaire John McCauley’s ramblings between songs, and a point was reached where I couldn’t have taken a picture that didn’t turn out blurry to save my life. By no means was I in the minority. The sold out crowd at the Tractor was rowdy, rambunctious, and thoroughly primed to get down to Deer Tick’s rip roaring down home folk rock. McCauley points out on the band’s website that their live shows “tend to go a bit haywire,” and as soon as the Holy Son’s finished their opening set, I could feel the crowd’s anticipation and excitement starting to bubble over. One thing that was clear to me was that there was potential for things to get raucous.
Deer Tick came through Seattle as part of a country-wide tour to warm up the masses for their upcoming album, The Black Dirt Sessions, set to be released on June 8th. It will be their third full-length album since 2007 and will hit the shelves (or the iTunes search results) almost one year exactly after the band’s acclaimed sophomore effort, Born on Flag Day. They led off the show with “Easy,” the fan favorite that also leads off Born on Flag Day, but the rest of the set was more or less geared toward new material. Several songs off The Black Dirt Sessions were debuted to the Seattle fan base, as well a song or two McCauley wrote with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit in Nashville. Absolutely everything they played was followed by a boisterous round of communal yelling, whistling, and fist raising from the audience, and despite the number of more subdued songs in Deer Tick’s catalogue, every chord they played was charged with so much intensity and passion that the energy never dissipated. Eventually McCauley announced that the band needed to “take a break,” and after a short intermission they returned to the stage and played what was more of a shorter second set than an encore. This was followed by the band returning to the stage once again in response to a “one more song” chant, to which they wrapped up the night with a pleasing little thirty second outro.
It was a well-rounded, well-managed set that was orchestrated perfectly by McCauley, who has been touring and recording prolifically over the past few years. On stage, the Deer Tick front man appears frail and meek. He carries himself around with loose posture and when he speaks, as he does frequently between songs, he does so with a mumbling lackadaisical drawl that doesn’t exactly bespeak the typical front man bravado. When the music starts, though, McCauley turns into an animal and out of nowhere comes his powerful gravelly wail, sounding as if he is trying with all his might to sing his way out of his sorrows. But what makes McCauley’s songwriting great is the sense that he believes he can sing his way out of whatever is fueling his oftentimes forlorn lyrics, resulting in a hope-filled form of folk rock melancholia that is as inspiring as it is unique.
The most memorable moment of the show, however, came just as the band was closing out the first portion of the set. McCauley and lead guitarist Ian O’Neil (formerly of Titus Andronicus) were in the middle of a frenzied guitar jam with the rest of the band right behind them. As was the case several times throughout the evening, McCauley and O’Neil stood facing each other, hunched over their guitars and shredding them apart like madmen as they crowd cheered on. Suddenly, something went wrong with McCauley’s guitar and he had to stop playing. A tech hurriedly rushed on stage, took McCauley’s guitar and crouched at the base of his mic stand to work on it. It couldn’t have been a more inopportune time for a guitar to malfunction and McCauley was left instrument-less as the rest of the band continued playing and the crowd continued screaming. The energy was far too high to be waiting on anything, so after thinking for a split second McCauley spontaneously hurled himself off the stage and into the crowd like a kid running off a diving board. He landed in an accommodating pool of outstretched arms belonging to an audience that had turned borderline riotous. At this point, I think it was safe to say the show had gone haywire.