John McCauley (of Deer Tick) at City Winery / Afterword
David Burke, Contributing Writer, Foreword / Afterword, September 10, 2015
Last night, September 8, John McCauley played to a seated and well-behaved audience at City Winery. From the get-go, everything was strikingly un-Deer Tick. City Winery is a lovely venue, with racks of wine casks exposed to the spacious and split-level wooden dining room through glass walled cellars. The venue, which operates more like a dinner theatre than a concert venue, is clean, well appointed, and the stage is expertly placed for ideal views of the entertainment while you dine. But that’s just it. It’s decidedly not rock and roll. A look at the acts scheduled for the rest of the month will reveal a decidedly singer/songwriter, indie folk affinity for City Winery.
So it was no surprise when Frances Quinlan took the stage to open for McCauley. Quinlan, of Hop Along, a somewhat shy and simultaneously affected persona on stage, played several songs behind a softly strummed electric guitar, pausing between each song to retune and say something to the crowd. Quinlan sounds like a breathy cat, if that’s possible, airy and gentle for most of her lower range, then howling and ragged as she pours it on. Fans of True Detective’s most recent sonic concept may find some appeal with Quinlan. Her voice, which is too overwhelming for a tenderly strummed guitar, seemed to fill the room and consume it. But there was something missing in Quinlan’s set. Most likely it was the rest of her band.
Early in the evening, it was difficult to gauge who in the room was there for what, and many sat and watched as one would watch a talent show, that is, politely interested, but not personally or emotionally invested. The obvious crowd favorite seemed to be the goat cheese flatbread. Through Quinlan’s set, people continued to stream in, situate themselves, peruse the wine list and order dinner. The couple seated on one side of me seemed out for date night more than anything else. My neighbors on the other side, vocal Deer Tick fans, two former bros turned suits, enthusiastically ordered a round of fireball shots for themselves and their dates and were disapprovingly informed that the house did not offer fireball. They settled for a flatbread.
When McCauley took the stage, he did so to lively applause, but I worried. John McCauley used to look like a pirate on stage, dirty, wild, and anything but sober. Last night he was calm and clean and though he joked about the “vintage” vodka orange juice he was drinking out of a wine glass, he seemed rested and sober. I figured we were doomed.
Not so. John McCauley has one of the most arresting voices you’ll ever hear live, and while his former lack of sobriety may have accentuated it, it cannot be suppressed. The gravel rag and polish that I mentioned in Foreword / cannot be denied. He opened his set with “Smith Hill,” and with it, opened in me a deep and rootless nostalgia. “I could drink myself to death tonight,” he sang, “I could stand and give a toast.” His voice, half pleading, half proclaiming, entirely sincere, the buzz and rasp somehow further proving his earnest song, and at once I felt in the presence of some time worn American truth, conjured by a tale of love and loss and delivered by the voice of a man of suffering. Then the chorus, “Love, its hard to hide it / True love, it’s hard to find it / Oh, I was once beside it / I’ve fallen far behind it.” Comfortable in my bourgeois surroundings, I felt strange to be watching such a show. I felt strange to be watching some misplaced cowboy bleed on stage in front of me as I sipped my glass of Chilean Carmenère.
But the set was absolutely fantastic. John McCauley, unlike anyone else I’ve ever heard, doesn’t sing when he sings. He doesn’t reach down and summon something. He opens floodgates, and by sheer power of will regulates their flow so that the dam isn’t overwhelmed by the pressure and destroyed. Last night he released such a torrent of energy and endless longing, I just sat in silence. He played “Christ Jesus,” “Little White Lies,” “Twenty Miles” and “Big House.” He played “Mr. Sticks” to a man in front of me I imagined to be his father. He covered Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (if I’m Still in Love With You.)” He played new songs “Cocktail,” and “Doomed From the Start,” the latter of which was a favorite of mine. He played “Mange” and confessed, “I’ve never seen eyes so hurt, the kind that scream my name… I’ve gotta tie up all my loose ends ‘fore my skin turns to mange.”
But, for all of the anguish, the set wasn’t pure misery. McCauley was lively between songs, telling a story about messing with Dawes on the road, and inviting his wife, Vanessa Carlton on stage to sing “In Our Time” with him. (Carlton sings the song with McCauley on Deer Tick’s 2013 LP Negativity.) He closed his set with a two-song encore, the first of which was a cover of “La Bamba.” My final thoughts were difficult to articulate, but they boiled down to this. John McCauley sounds like what America wants to sound like, but doesn’t. In this he’s a welcome voice, and, simultaneously, a bit of an outlier. Around the room, I saw many who wanted their John McCauley to be something that he isn’t, some sort of thrash-folk anti-establishment hero. To me, he’s more of an American loner, a part-time poet with an undeniable voice who knows his way around a guitar, and sings because it’s his affliction. Because he can’t not sing. And we’re all lucky for it.
Foreword / Afterword
September 10, 2015