Published Aug 11, 2010Deer Tick have always walked a thin line between roots rock luminaries and also-rans: despite some strong songwriting on their first two records, the band often leaned a little too hard on the genre's tropes, the music elevated by group mastermind John McCauley's Steve Earle rasp. But with this year's The Black Dirt Sessions, McCauley and co. proved they have the ability to write songs in their own mould, utilizing subtlety and understatement to carry the record's emotional upheaval. Whether that could be translated to the band's notoriously raucous live show, though, remained to be seen.
Toronto's the Warped 45s, led by cousins Dave and Ryan Wayne McEathron, started the night, delivering a great set of classic Queen West alt-country rock. The quintet were all smiles throughout their set, and Dave in particular showed a great degree of versatility in his vocals.
Mountain Man, which are actually three women, were squeezed into the evening's middle slot, singing Appalachian-style a cappella tunes. Sauntering on stage and declaring "silence is my bitch," the trio launched into three-part harmonies with pipes that would make Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker blush. But the schtick grew old after a few songs as the band's energy-less set wore on the increasingly boozed-up crowd.
Deer Tick hit the stage and quickly launched into "Smith Hill" from 2009's Born on Flag Day. McCauley, decked out in a George Thorogood tee and a Panama hat, was backed by a four-piece band, and let former Titus Andronicus guitarist Ian O'Neil take lead vocals on new song, which was a bit of a mistake given O'Neil's rather unremarkable singing voice and the fact that it was only the second song.
Many of Deer Tick's songs on record are small affairs, with sparse accompaniment making McCauley's brilliant vocals sound absolutely huge in comparison. But by the band's third song, War Elephant's "Dirty Dishes," it was clear that rather than showcase the band's newfound sense of dynamics, McCauley intended to beat the audience with a blunt object, sonically speaking. The group insisted on amping up everything, killing the transcendent arc that so many of the their songs have on record. Many of the songs started out sounding like covers, before Deer Tick swung the focus back to their own stuff.
Throughout the band's long set McCauley rarely lifted his eyes above the mic, leading the quintet through flat takes on songs from throughout the band's short career. The crowd that had packed the front of the stage welcomed most of the songs with hoots and hollers, and plenty of sing-alongs. But in the back of the Horseshoe many were left wondering why the dragged themselves out of their homes on a perfectly good Tuesday night to shell out $15 to hear covers of "Maybellene," "Oh Boy" and "Waitress in the Sky." Toronto has a great tradition of roots rock acts, the night's openers the Warped 45s being a perfect example. Given Deer Tick's propensity to morph into nothing more than a bar band live, it seems silly to shell out the extra cash to hear music you can see any night of the week.