A couple of songs in to Deer Tick’s set, front man John McCauley looks up to the ceiling and spits in to the air. The crowd, the band and McCauley alike watch in suspense, following the acrobatic phlegm as it travels skywards, sparkles under the stage lights, flips and land right back in his mouth again. Indifferent, he swallows and breaks in to the next song. It’s fortunate really: his Rhode Island voice is so raspy that his saliva is probably caustic, and had that globule landed anywhere else, I think it would have burnt a hole.
It’s not the nicest anecdote to bring back, but it’s hard not to relish Deer Tick’s indifference to the way things are supposed to be done, in music and in their day-to-day life. They disagree with record labels, they hate ‘indie-rock’, they play Nirvana covers at SXSW. There’s the messy stuff about the drink and the drugs, but there’s also the nice stuff about McCauley’s recent marriage to Vanessa Carlton, in a ceremony officiated by Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks.
All this in mind, it’s difficult to know what to expect from their live show. They start with a lot from 2013’s ‘Negativity’, perhaps with exaggerated country twangs for a UK audience. Before long though, they break in to a raucous rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy”, followed by “Let’s All Go to the Bar”, and it seems to be country and rock and punk in perfect, clamouring harmony.
Until now, McCauley been clambering on the drum kit and drinking beer with no hands while playing guitar. When Carlton joins the band on stage for “In Our Time” his entire demeanour changes; unable to stop glancing at her and smirking. It’s entirely affecting to watch, especially after he’s spoken about her helping with his substance abuse, his incarcerated father, and all else that comes with being in Deer Tick. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like a ripple of vicarious sanctity spreads through the room for a moment.
The moment lasts only a song though; Carlton leaves and the second half of the set becomes groovy, more fluid, and somehow veers in to “Good King Wenceslas” amongst other, more rowdy divergences. I wonder if it’s quite similar to being inside McCauley’s head. Sometimes you amble through things, like the guitars, sometimes you swagger, like the walking bass lines, sometimes you notice other people, but sometimes you’re entirely caught up in your own thing and often it culminates in crashes and roars and feedback and noise.
Occasionally this goes too far: at one point McCauley makes gun imitations at the side of his head. The rest of the time though, this is a captivating glimpse of one of the most interesting bands working through a fascinating turning point and really coming out on top, musically and personally.
Frankly, if I’d got my music honed like Deer Tick have at the moment, and if I’d just married someone that makes me smile like McCauley is, I’d be spitting in to my own mouth with excitement too.
By Alice Lawrence