Deer Tick played to a sold- out Swyer Theater at the Egg Friday night. The acoustic show had far less volume and excitement than the band’s electric sound, and the audience was toned down as well, but it didn’t diminish the quality of the show.
While John McCauley did most of the singing, others took their turns — including drummer Dennis Ryan, who sang a few great ones, like “Clowning Around,” which was anything but that.
Ian O’Neil, who sat upfront on a stool alongside McCauley, traded the guitar solos with McCauley — there were only a handful — and sang a few songs as well. They all had similarly gruff, scratchy and strong voices. McCauley mumbled inaudibly when he spoke, but his, and their, singing was loud, projecting and clear.
McCauley called out O’Neil for taking out his electric guitar for the slow and somber “Nevada,” reminding him that it’s an acoustic show. But it didn’t matter what instrument O’Neil played, the intimacy and sentiment was acoustic. The songs were short and steeped in Americana rock, like “Smith Hill,” often sounding similar to The Band sound.
“It’s Only Love” was a bit sappy for McCauley, even when he attacked the vocals with his muscular rasp.
McCauley doesn’t come across as a trained musician, but he can play numerous instruments, and Friday night he started on a variety of guitars, soloed with a recorder and a mandolin, then moved to piano to play a moving “Christ Jesus,” where he finally let go with a vocal wail. The five-man band brought this song a bit higher than the others, and we realized that not much had happened till that point, some 45 minutes into the show.
McCauley loosened a little after that, the band attacked slightly and McCauley’s singing became more potent, but the show stayed pretty even-keeled.
A few songs later, McCauley returned to the piano to sing the raw love song “Hey Doll.” McCauley has a gruff persona, so it’s unexpected – and enjoyable — to see him sing such an exposing ballad.
“Art Isn’t Real (City of Sin)” bounced nicely with an upbeat country tempo, one of the lighter sounds of the night. But the heavy lyrics gave weight to the song with lines like “I lived in lies all my life, And I’ve been living here for a long, long time . . . . Maybe I’ll see better days, but I’m not so sure I will,” McCauley squeezing his face and shouting raw notes.
They played a south-of-the-border new one called “Cocktail.” Here the band found a different pocket for themselves, showing they could play outside their groove.
“What do you think of the Velvet Underground?” McCauley asked the crowd, getting a lukewarm response before O’Neil started playing and singing the hypnotizing song “Pale Blue Eyes.” O’Neil did a great job making it his own song, and not trying to imitate the young Lou Reed some 40 years ago. Ryan’s hand drum playing gave it an earthy tone. While O’Neil’s vocal range may not be large, his ability to draw you in is, and he turned it into a highlight of the show.
The set oddly ended with everyone leaving the stage one by one, drummer Ryan alone banging with one arm, then leaving. They all returned to play a few more.
Their logo of a large deer tick loomed onstage. A repulsive sight at first, it took on a different meaning as the night wore on. The music would cling to you after the show, but it wasn’t something one needed to scrape off.
Mutual Benefit opens
Mutual Benefit opened the show, a particularly soft-spoken band led by a softer-spoken Julian Lee. The foursome played pretty, short songs that moved like thoughtful, personal poems.
Lee entertained us during and between songs playing an awkward, introspective character, but he actually controlled the audience with skill. His singing was enjoyable, as were his quick, whispered dialogues, with original lines like “This is the first dairy product that we’ve played within.” If you like soft, pretty and intellectual, they are worth checking out.