Two Nights with John McCauley of Deer Tick
City Winery NYC • Sept. 7-8, 2015
By: Debi Ellis McDonald
We are living in an era where image is often mistaken for substance. While that is indeed a sad commentary on our times, the positive spin is that it makes it that much more special when you get to watch an artist who is able to leave all the bullshit behind. Adding in his poignant lyrics and skillful guitar playing, it is easy to see why John McCauley has a fiercely loyal following. He is a man who is not afraid to put his ego aside and bear his soul for the sake of the song. He is willing to explore the things that many of us have running through our head, but are unable to put into words.
Singer of the fun loving, alt-country band Deer Tick, as well as successful side projects Middle Brother (with members of Dawes and Delta Spirit) and Diamond Rugs (with members of Deer Tick, Black Lips, Dead Confederate, and Los Lobos), it is quite rare to see him playing solo. He just wrapped up a 5 date mini-tour of the City Winery venues: Nashville, Chicago, NYC (2 nights), and Napa. No frills, no fuss, just an incredible singer/songwriter sitting on a bar stool in jeans and a flannel, electric guitar plugged into a small amp, belting out all the songs we in the crowd know and love and turning the upscale, sit-down venue into an exuberant sing-along party.
Opening both nights was Frances Quinlan, of the Philly based band Hop Along. Very unassuming, Frances stood on stage with her electric guitar and played primarily songs from her band’s catalog, including the recently released “Painted Shut,” with a couple covers thrown in by artists such as Jackson Frank and Built to Spill. Opening slots can be tough, particularly when you are standing alone on stage at a quiet venue, but she had no trouble holding the audience’s attention. Her voice is extremely interesting and uniquely hers. There were moments when it was soft and pretty and moments when it was a gravely howl. After her set ended each night, I found myself thinking that one day very soon, I need to see this woman letting go with her band, preferably in some gritty bar with floors sticky from spilt beer.
With the crowd sufficiently warmed up, John unassumingly walked out on stage and nonchalantly said hello to everyone. He was perhaps a bit nervous initially. After all, his natural setting is with his band mates, in front of a rowdy crowd of fans who are all on their feet well before the music even starts. Looking out at all of us sitting, with our wine glasses in hand, must have felt like an alien sighting. And then he started playing, and everything else fell away. In two nights, he played a total of 47 songs, with only 6 repeats, which thoroughly covering the Deer Tick catalog, sprinkling in the occasional Middle Brother and Diamond Rugs song, as well as a handful of covers ranging from Hank Williams to Warren Zevon.
Night one had him opening with a crowd favorite, “Daydreaming,” the absolutely gorgeous ballad from the Middle Brother LP about being in love at a distance, with someone whom he probably shouldn’t be in love with in the first place. That tempo set the tone for the evening. Every song he played was mostly kept in its original arrangement, but without the other instruments there to fill the space, the lyrics jumped to the forefront. The night also featured much of Deer Tick’s slower material. Highlights such as “Houston, TX,” “Ashamed,” “Dirty Dishes” and the incredible, rarely played “Piece by Piece, Frame by Frame” were even more powerful in this stripped down fashion. “Not So Dense” and “Main Street” shined in a slightly slower tempo, as did “Baltimore Blues No. 1,” from Deer Tick’s revered debut album War Elephant, before which he said, with a shy laugh, “I once played this song on TV.”
Somewhere in the middle of night one, John asked the crowd how many people were coming back tomorrow, because he really liked the set list he had written and was wondering if he could just do it again. Surprisingly, it was a small applause in response, perhaps 25%. Still, the man knows his audience, and he came back for night 2 with a brand new set of tunes. Starting out strong with “Smith Hill,” he was visibly more comfortable and ready to let loose after having night one under his belt. There were hauntingly beautiful, slower songs, such as “Big House,” “Little White Lies,” “Christ Jesus” and the fan voted #1 “20 Miles,” but this set also featured some more classically up tempo material, like “Easy” and “These Old Shoes,” that required a little more re-working to play without the band. “Mange” in particular, for which he used a guitar he made himself when he was starting out, was simply incredible.
Each night, he brought out his wife, singer Vanessa Carlton, to duet with him on the song “In Our Time.” The song, which was written for his parents, tells the story of a long married couple reflecting back on their lives together. This moment is becoming a staple at his shows, and it is quite adorable to watch them, a couple more on the starting out side of things, sing these words to each other. They have an easy, comfortable banter between them. While tuning his guitar, he just started chatting with her that he was warm and had clearly broken out the flannel too soon. He went on to share how easy he was to shop for. JC Penney, off the rack, medium. It was quite funny and one of those refreshing moments where the audience gets to see what life looks like behind the wizard’s curtain.
He’s also been working out some newly written, unreleased material at shows lately. “Doomed from the Start” was played both nights, and the crowd was also treated to the amusing “Cocktail,” as well as “Lightening in a Bottle,” which made its live debut on Tuesday.
In between songs, he told some very amusing anecdotes about the songs and about touring life. One in particular, about a prank the guys in Deer Tick played on the members of Dawes, was as hilarious as it was absolutely disgusting. Still, it gave you a glimpse into the crazy world of these grown boys who live their lives on tour for our pleasure.
The word I keep coming back to when I think of John is relatable. For all the talk about people “who are just like you and I” or “who you could just have a beer with,” John McCauley represents the epitome of that vibe. He is an incredible talent, and he doesn’t really seem to know it, or at least he doesn’t think that what he does is that big of a deal. And that is what makes his work all the more genuine and appealing. He is a small town boy from Rhode Island who has made good. We are just grateful that we are there to witness it.