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An Intimate Session with Providence's Deer Tick at American Songbook

by Brian Corliss

Deer Tick, American Songbook

Lincoln Center's American Songbook series—a celebration of traditional American music encompassing folk, Southern rock, indie rock, country, bluegrass, and jazz—continued Thursday night with a superb performance by the Rhode Island quintet Deer Tick at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room. If you've never been to a performance in this space, please, do yourself a favor and grab a couple of seats (or even a table) or anything available, because it is such a beautiful place to enjoy this music: the atmosphere is light, the view of Columbus Circle and Central Park is a stunning backdrop, and the music effectively wraps itself around your arms and legs, never to let you go.

When a band such as Deer Tick plays what was jokingly referred to as an "unplugged" performance, the night became a wondrous concoction of laughter, soothing instrumentals, emotionally wrought lyrics, and a coziness rarely found outside the tightest of friends. They even led the audience in a performance of "Happy Birthday" for someone named Marcus. Flat out, it was one of the best shows I've ever seen in my life. 

John McCauley, Deer Tick, American Songbook

Deer Tick's sound comes from a strong base of bluegrass and folk, though they seem to make a point of playing anything that would fall into a typical "Southern" style. With five full-length albums, they've built themselves a thick catalog of sing-a-long songs, ballads, and heavier numbers like "Big House," off their latest release Negativity—an expression of crushing suffering from being a spectator to a friend's heroin addiction.

Lead songwriter and vocalist John McCauley is a polarized mix of a bluesy Bob Dylan and the harsh gravel of Kurt Cobain; made obvious by his teasing the audience with a bar of "About a Girl." Dylan's inspiration is most pronounced in "Ashamed," "Long Time," and a jazzed-up version of "Baltimore Blues No. 1" from their debut album, War Elephant.

Deer Tick's fourth album, Divine Providence, is probably their best representation as a country band; on Thursday, they played several tracks, including "Let's All Go to the Bar," "Mr. Cigarette" (tuned to "I've Been Working on the Railroad,") and "The Bump," all riotous crowd-pleasers that could have been heard in 19th-century saloons. It was during these songs that the Allen Room seemed to come alive: people swaying to the beat in their seats, chanting, cheering. When McCauley finally shouted "Now It's Your Turn!" there was soon a couple off to the side slow dancing.

deer tick, american songbook

McCauley brought his wife and fellow singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton on stage to sing "In Our Time," off of Negativity. It was not only a touching moment as they shared a kiss at the end, but reinforced the communal mood of the night, making it a personal performance for the newlyweds as well as the audience.

The band ended their night with an encore of "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)" that sent us off on a foot-stampin' note. After this show, I feel like I now know these guys, outside of being a frequent listener and lover of their music. It was an all-around marvelous performance of alt-country and blues, friendship and love.

Deer Tick, American Songbook