I have it on good authority that the O2 Brooklyn Bowl is an exact replica of the original venue in New York. The Big Apple version has hosted Guns n’ Roses, Elvis Costello and Bill Clinton. The UK facsimile is nothing short of rose-tinted nostalgia for anyone of a certain age, the interior resembling a hybrid of the bar in Cheers and the American bowling alleys seen in countless brat pack movies. I suspect Deer Tick have played the real thing or derivatives of it a thousand times. Twenty feet away from the stage is a long bar on one side and a bowling alley on the other, which remains open throughout the set and offers an unusual acoustic to various quieter passages in the music, the crack of balls and ragged cheers greeting a strike mingling with the songs. Loud sax-driven funk from the PA obliterates any possibility of conversation, which is just as well, as a dry mouth is going to cause your bank manager seizures when you’re forced to buy a drink. Gotta love London, right? In Providence, Rhode Island, I’d expect a local kid in Converse to take the stage by the scruff of the neck and play Springsteen covers for three hours, then start his second set twenty minutes later. ‘Chuck! Chuck! It’s your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this!’
This isn’t Providence, or Hilldale, and just because you can take the look out of Brooklyn, I’m not sure you can replicate the atmosphere. Which gives Deer Tick a problem given that they’ve previously described their live show as a ‘..raw and spontaneous kerosene blaze.’ Looking around as the clock ticks around to showtime, a washed-out attempt at rubbing sticks together is more likely than an inferno, despite a respectable crowd.
A biography of Deer Tick reads like the best kind of beach-holiday book; one car crash after another. Highlights include multiple changes in personnel, side-projects and impromptu bands that collapse as quickly as they’re formed, fathers jailed for fraud, marriage to Vanessa Carlton (only one of them and only once, I hasten to add) and events that explode into stream of conscience ‘happenings’ -let’s assume the wedding wasn’t one of them. It’s the sort of resume designed to throw you off-guard and add a sheen of mystique to the individuals on stage, but it doesn’t prepare you for what actually happens when they plug in and strike the first chord.
[pullquote]Had I been able to plug them into the national grid, they would have lit up London from now until Christmas.[/pullquote]From that first note to the last, what follows is a controlled burst of energy wrapped in the guise of various genre-hopping songs that nudge up against folk, Americana, rock, punk and power-pop, the latter two surprisingly to the fore. Had I been able to plug them into the national grid, they would have lit up London from now until Christmas. It’s electric in the way you imagine the great nights at CBGB’s were; guts, blood and scorching melody, clever arrangements and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, all held together with devil-may-care banter and lots and lots of laughs. They’re so tight they make Warren Buffet look spendthrift. The crowd is partisan, in the mood and in the palm of Deer Tick’s hand after two songs; hold the sticks, call the fire brigade!
A few songs in (you’ll have to see the set list for titles, I didn’t catch any – difficult enough to take notes when you’re lower jaw is scraping the floor, let alone hear the introduction), it’s clear that Deer Tick are, in fact, quite mad. It’s like watching a set of pre-pubescent boys given ‘Weird Science’ powers, mutating into a beast of punk-pop perfection and marking their territory by stealing liberally from Springsteen, Big Star, Tom Petty, Nirvana and The Ramones by turning everything up to eleven, pressing fast-forward and blowing the roof off the garage – riffs so crunchy you could add nuts and call them breakfast. It’s folk, Jim, etc. Silly cover versions in-between songs, made up lyrics, jokes, fake guitarist fights during solo’s – it hits me that the PR can sometimes be rather more than today’s chip paper. How… enlightening.
It should not work. It does.
To add to the mayhem, they’re a motley looking bunch. Singer-songwriter John McCauley – or Mr. Vanessa Carlton if you prefer – could be a younger Chris Collingwood (Fountains of Wayne) and Chris Dale Ryan wields his bass dressed as a cross between a prep student and Ben Folds. Drummer Dennis Ryan, who is nothing short of a legend throughout and celebrates his birthday at the half-way point of the set with a crowd-led sing-a-long, could be a face double for Ray Lamontagne or Animal from the Muppets. Guitarist Ian O’Neill strolls the stage with a Gary Louris (Jayhawks) hair-do and the keyboard player Rob Crowell is a younger Mick Hucknall in denim. I’m not sure too many Deer Tick calendars will be sold at Christmas, but I am sure Deer Tick won’t care.
And if by now you’re thinking it’s all a bit Disney and an early night in with the Watersons and a cup of tea is required, Deer Tick are very, very good. Every song bursts with creativity and is executed with efficient panache – a little a capella here, some harmonies there, a change in key when we were expecting another chorus. The melodies are catchy and nothing outstays its welcome. The first few rows of the crowd po-go, whirl around in abandon, link arms and high-five, shout out for favourites and scream their appreciation when recognising an open chord. Yes; scream. Somewhere inside the experiment, there are five men intent on having, and providing, a good time, and they do it brilliantly.
When I was young, bands had a drummer and bass guitarist that weren’t allowed to get involved or speak to anyone, a singer with an ego the size of Bono’s wallet and a guitarist who could throw shapes. None of them would smile in photographs. Looking back, it seems the idea of being in a band was more important than being one. Deer Tick is the natural result of this evolutionary channel, the right genes ganging together to ensure the impostors would only ever reach a dead end. Happy to say hi after the show, members of the band take time to sign albums, knock back a beer and make friends, safe in the knowledge they can knock another successful night on the head. Remarkable.
N.B. the author would like to point out that the gratuitous use of pop-culture references from the 1980s in this review are his own and liberally splashing them through the piece in an attempt to extend its length is crass and does not necessarily reflect the views of Folk Radio UK. However, if you get every one right, I’ll buy you a beer next time you’re in town.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Deer Tick are the main support for The Gaslight Anthem in November, including a date at London Alexandra Palace on November 19. Dates below:
Nov 17 – Manchester – Apollo*
Nov 18 – Manchester – Apollo*
Nov 19 – London – Alexandra Palace*
Nov 21 – Edinburgh – Corn Exchange*
Nov 22 – Cardiff – Motorpoint Arena*
Nov 23 – Birmingham – O2 Academy*
*Supporting The Gaslight Anthem