Foreword / John McCauley (of Deer Tick) at City Winery
David Burke, Contributing Writer, Foreword / Afterword, September 8, 2015
Deer Tick front man John McCauley is back at City Winery for a second night tonight. On a solo tour that spun out of staple Newport Folk Festival peripheral offering, Deer Tick and Friends, McCauley will play City Winery locations in Nashville, Chicago and Napa in addition to this week’s stand in NYC. The show promises to be a gem, as McCauley is a rockstar’s rockstar, and the venue boasts, among other accolades, a place on Zagat’s “NYC’s Best Music Venues” list. Just a brief bit of inquiry will provide you with an image of McCauley that ought to sell most. That he’s an afflicted musician, reckless and wildly disinterested in your opinion is probably a fair assessment. And he’s a mess. Or at least he used to be.
I’ve seen McCauley twice before. The first time I saw him he was playing with Middle Brother at Newport Folk Festival in 2011 and with Deer Tick at an after party later that night. He was wild. He promised to kiss the first person that brought him a new vodka tonic in the middle of the set. Then I saw him again with Deer Tick at Webster Hall in 2013. They knocked me over. They were so tight, so focused, and so earnest. It was like seeing a different band.
Now McCauley hasn’t been shy about discussing his former substance heavy lifestyle, and his reputation as a wild man has certainly gained him some attention, but this, I assure you, is only color. He is, via Deer Tick as well as side projects Diamond Rugs and Middle Brother, perhaps the most American songwriter working in rock and roll. He is a chronicle of the modern aging young American mind. He’s sex and drugs and selfish carelessness, but he’s also love and loss and undeniable futility and his oscillation between hedonism and absolute loneliness screams out as the voice of the times. His lyrics wrap you in an oh-so-timely sense of slow-burning catastrophe and personal agony. As the best do, McCauley emanates a strong emotional atmosphere inside of which you draw breath when you listen to Deer Tick.
And that’s just the song writing. The Deer Tick sound sits on the rockier edge of new-Americana, though it often veers into punk rock and occasionally tastes a bit country. The band can don many hats, musically, and that’s probably the other biggest element of their reputation. Deer Tick, who’s 2009 LP Born on Flag Day was Rolling Stone’s “Country-rock break-through of the year” also occasionally plays under the pseudonym Deervana as a Nirvana tribute band. Perhaps it’s this versatility and willingness to play freely that has earned them a favorable reputation among their peers. It’s certainly their magnetism and performance charisma that have garnered a large and loyal fan base. Oh, and there’s his voice.
McCauley sounds like he’s constantly been eating gravel and sleeping outdoors. The stones both scrape and polish the same voice. The cool damp nights involve the sinuses. He’s ragged in just the right way, though his voice is powerful and broad. In a word, it’s raw – meat tenderizer raw. Listen to its low, ragged buzz in “Mange,” its exasperated yell in “The Bump,” and its plaintive agony in “Christ Jesus.” It’s phenomenal. “Christ Jesus,” by the way, the second recording from 2010’s The Black Dirt Sessions, is surely, barring none, the most haunting song I’ve ever heard.
So tonight, I’m uniquely excited because I know what John McCauley has been in the past, and I’ve seen what he can be on stage, and this time, he’ll be solo. If you can still snag a ticket, do it. That’s the word for this Tuesday, boys and girls. There or square.
Foreword / Afterword
September 8, 2015