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,
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
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 is that 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.
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
Tonight, the infinite highway brings John J. McCauley III to
Carnegie Hall's storied stage. Seems risky, which of course makes
it a perfectly McCauley-esque move. Will he get all reverent and
show off the depth and breadth of his career thus far, or maybe
he'll get loaded and lead Deer Tick through a parade of ramshackle
Judy Garland covers. The billing of John McCauley and
Friends is in itself fraught with possibilities. After
all, dude's got a lot of friends.
—Michael Krugman is a New York Times best-selling
writer. He lives in Brooklyn.