by Brian Corliss
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.
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.
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.