I hadn't seen Deer Tick live until early October 2011. My dearest friend and musical director for the past 21 years had long been pestering me, positive that I'd dig John J. McCauley III—he who is, for all intents and purposes, Deer Tick. "Trust me," he said, "this guy is everything you like about rock ‘n' roll. Fist-pumping sing-alongs, quiet reflection, song after song after song. Plus, he's got that intangible, that certain something extra, you know?"
With this in mind, I headed to Williamsburg for an intimate Deer Tick set at the tiny Death By Audio, a spur-of-the-moment gig hastily assembled to call attention to the police brutality then befalling Occupy Wall Street protesters. In other words, the perfect venue for losing my Deer Tick cherry. It was a small, sweaty space, packed to the walls with superfans and revved-up revolutionaries.
Politics aside, Deer Tick clearly came to play that night, something I've since learned is what they do on pretty much any given evening. McCauley proved to be all that I'd been told and then some, the kind of frontman who tickled a place inside me that I had long ago relegated to memory and fond story.
Now, McCauley has always been unabashed in conjuring up memories of his predecessors, from busting out shambolic Replacements covers to performing entire tribute sets as the one and only Deervana. That takes real brass, to constantly remind folks about the pantheon, unafraid of being overshadowed by what has come before. Over the course of the show, it finally came clear to me. John McCauley can pull that off because he pretty much isthat same guy, the singer-songwriter-frontman-rockstar who speaks the words a generation feels inside.
McCauley led Deer Tick and the assembled through a sweaty, smoke-fugged two-hour set, his voice howling with frustration, melancholy, and maybe one shot too many. Drink—the cause of, and solution to all of life's problems—flowed like a river through his tunes and between-song banter, reaching its high-water mark in "Let's All Go To The Bar," a beery, boozy rallying cry that sounded as if it's always been there, waiting to be bellowed by a roomful of new best friends.
It's unbelievable to think it's been less than a decade since he first announced his presence, first via a batch of promising cassettes and CD-Rs and then with the deep dark War Elephant, filled with knowing character studies and self-lacerating introspection such as "Baltimore Blues No. 1" and the anguished "Christ Jesus." Since then, the insanely prolific McCauley has penned a remarkably detailed chronicle of a post-millennial town with little or no pity, populated by lovers and losers, drunks and dreamers, and damned fools. Y'know, just like you and your friends.
John McCauley performs "Daydreaming" at Music City Roots, Live From The Loveless Cafe, Nashville.
Sonically speaking, McCauley is working the same angles as iconoclastic cats like Neil Young or Howe Gelb still do, rambunctious ramblers trolling the blue highways of American music, what The Blasters—another signpost on the continuum—referred to as "a howl from the desert, a scream from the slums / The Mississippi rollin' to the beat of the drums."
Hell, that reads almost precisely like McCauley's musical palette. Country soul and Delta blues, old-time gospel and hardcore punk, it's all in there. From the jump, it was clear Deer Tick were both bar band and serious artists, pulling rock up by the roots, where the soil is richest.
Each successive Deer Tick record reveals more colors and increased perspective, the rave-ups get wilder, the ballads more knowing and hurt. And then, just when you think you had ‘em figured out, Divine Providence sands off the country grain to expose the Tick's inner punk. From the Twin/Tone garage-pop perfection of "Walking Out That Door" to the unshakable "Main Street," the album is McCauley's finest moment thus far, fully pointing Deer Tick towards the universality of their heroes.
And like any folksinger worth his salt, McCauley is also a damned fine organizer, bringing together audiences as well as such musical alliances as Middle Brother (in which our hero enjoins an old-school singer-songwriter supergroup with two like-minded troubadours in Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith and Delta Spirit's Matt Vasquez), or the Newport Folk Festival after-parties featuring the likes of Jackson Browne, Conor Oberst, Sharon Van Etten, and whoever else wants to stop by for a song and a nightcap. Diamond Rugs, his latest coalition project, firmly situates McCauley in the American Underground rock continuum as he leads an era-spanning roster that includes members of Six Finger Satellite, The Black Lips, and Dead Confederate, not to mention the great saxophonist Steve Berlin, late of Los Lobos and the aforementioned Blasters.
The billing of John McCauley and Friends is in itself fraught with possibilities. After all, dude's got a lot of friends.