Written for FUCM
Remember the good ol’ days? You remember, back when Pluto was still a planet? People used to laugh, regularly. They would shout, maybe have a little drinkie and, y’know, enjoy themselves? Oh, nostalgia! And, sometimes, people would go to concerts and shows and they would have what was known as “a good time”. Man, those were the days. Sometimes, even the band would join in. Maybe they’d had a tipple, too. They would play their instruments out of tune and at breakneck speeds. Occasionally, there might be harsh words exchanged… fisticuffs even. But they didn’t give a fuck, and that’s why we loved them, why we wanted to be them and why we wanted to be with them.
Then something very bad happened. In a heinous, puritanical move designed to destroy rock and roll abandon, a witch hunt ensued. Spearheaded by a MOR music media, the “rock-star stereotype” gradually became a bad thing. The Evian sponsored falling star of flamboyant excess was soundtracked by a lead singer hell-bent on explaining how the agonizing autumnal hues really remind him of his missus slipping off with his best friend last September. Iggy Pop was stripped for parts and sold off to an insurance company and Johnny Rotten was bartered off to the jungle in exchange for his weight in butter. Even Ryan Adams was manhandled onto the wagon for long enough to make a couple of horrible records.
Okay, so I made some of that up. But y’see, until this week, live music had become about as exciting for me as discussing risk with Sting, whilst watching The English Patient. I was getting pretty much fed up of going to gigs and seeing people (not even just the bands) staring at their shoes. Maybe they’d give their toes the odd tap, give a little whistle, before politely applauding the efforts of the entertainment. But overall, the level of charisma had fallen to sub-zero levels. I mean, where had all the cowboys gone? And what the fuck ever happened to chicken wire?
Last week, in the unlikely setting of leafy Mancunian suburbia, I had a stick of dynamite inserted up my arse, courtesy of Rhode Island pseudo-hillbillies Deer Tick. I was blown away. It didn’t take a genius to work out that John McCauley, lead singer, band leader, guitar virtuoso and self-appointed class clown was completely slaughtered. Nor did his Old Glory, blazing guitars adorned, threadbare t-shirt leave us in any kind of doubt as to what we were to expect… he looked like he’d just crawled up the banks of the Mississippi. He announced he’d been drinking vodka all day. We all cheered. He stuck his head in an ice box full of beer. We cheered louder. He announced he was going to take his pants off. And, well, you get the picture.
There are many reasons why Deer Tick are an excellent band. Here are mine. Firstly, they have great songs. War Elephant is a great album. The follow up, Born on Flag Day is just as strong. Alt-country is a curious genre, often misconstrued, misrepresented and misunderstood. Well, for me, this lot here’s a contemporary blueprint. There’s country (duh), punk, blues, folk, grunge and garage rock. Even their choice of cover versions – Replacements, Michael Hurley, John Prine, The Sex Pistols and Chuck Berry – goes a long way to pinning down their sound.
McCauley’s voice is a hybrid of Kurt Cobain and Gary Louris from the Jayhawks. Sometimes he sounds like he’s been gargling gravel with moonshine. He can croon, he can yelp and he can shout. He’s a superb lead singer, backed by a talented, if mostly acquiescent unit. They recently recruited guitarist Ian O’Neil from New Jersey noiseniks Titus Andronicus, which allows McCauley more freedom to noodle, drink more beer, or, um, get his cock out.
They know how to play their songs live. By that, I don’t mean they can robotically churn out high fidelity renditions of their records, which I am pretty sure they can. In the flesh, these guys sound completely different than they do through your speakers. It sounds like a lazy observation to make, but when Deer Tick play live, they sound live. They sound louder, rawer and more raucous than anyone who’s heard their records could’ve thought possible. They improvise, they play requests, they invite people onto the stage, they throw balls to the wall, and it all sticks.
Here is a band awake to the raison d’etre of a live show – to entertain. Sometimes, they (see: McCauley) act like douchebags. They kick each other in the arse when performing an acapella encore. Hell, the drummer even takes off his boots so he can aim a better pot-shot at his singer’s rear. When the audience ask something of them they respond, no matter how ridiculous the demand. One excited, most likely traumatized, reveller barks an order to play some Sex Pistols, in honour of his mother, who died yesterday. It raises a slightly confused smirk from McCauley, who launches into a solo take on Holidays in the Sun, barely an eyelid batted.
When the support act, Megafaun, join Deer Tick on stage for a rollicking cover of Can’t Hardly Wait, McCauley proudly announces he’s going to do it in “true Replacements style”, which as far as I can tell, is shorthand for “sans pants.” Watching him thrash about the stage with his jocks round his ankles is bizarrely refreshing. He looks like he might fall on his face, but it doesn’t stop him from shuffling about, duelling guitars with O’Neil and generally acting the maggot. And this is what I’ve missed about live music. With Deer Tick, there was no self-consciousness, no posturing, no agenda and no bullshit. They didn’t give a fuck, and I loved it.
Maybe it was partly due to the unlikely venue – the overpriced beer, the tasteful artwork, the polished finish on the bar-top – but this disgustingly ramshackle performance took me by surprise, and reminded me that not all live shows turn out to be a damp squib. The histrionic resent I felt when listening to Nirvana Live at Reading on its release a few weeks back has slowly subsided. A bunch of scrawny, drunk kids from Rhode Island have rekindled my appetite for live music. And it didn’t even need the chicken wire. FB
Video: Deer Tick – Diamond Rings 2007 (Live in New York)