By Michael Lello
Photos by Jason Riedmiller
PHILADELPHIA — Deer Tick is a combustible combination of opposing forces. Sweet songs sung by a guy who sounds like he washed down razor blades with whiskey. A tune with a doomsday title like “The Dream’s In The Ditch” that sounds as pleasant as sunshine — if you ignore the lyrics.
So when Deer Tick takes the stage, those competing elements are at odds with each other, and sometimes one overtakes the other and at other times, sparks fly. Last Wednesday’s show at Union Transfer included both of those moments, with the latter coming to the forefront as the concert progressed.
Frontman John McCauley, clad in a wild, red, floral Western suit, thanked the crowd for “coming to our little party here” and sat down at the keyboards, tapping out the opening notes to “The Rock,” which also opens Deer Tick’s outstanding new album “Negativity.” “I gave the rock to only you,” McCauley sang, alluding to his recent ill-fated engagement. As the song’s intensity increased, he stepped out from the keyboards and strapped on a guitar, while the horn section blared. It was an attention-getting opener, to say the least.
After “Main Street,” McCauley said, “We got this new album out. We named it after this neon sign,” pointing to the “Negativity” sign behind the band, introducing “The Curtain,” one of the album’s many standouts. The verses are all organ funk, and the choruses expand into a widescreen rocker. “The stage hands are all gone/ The curtain still remains/ It hides the puppeteer/ Pulling on my strings,” McCauley sang. “I could swear I’m in control/ I could make a judge convinced/ But I know my spirit quit/ I don’t wanna be your bargaining chip.”
The ballad “Just Friends,” also from “Negativity,” provided a nice contrast, before Ian O’Neil took lead vocals on “The Dream’s In The Ditch,” the album’s lead single. The tunefulness of such sounds belie some of the danger that lurks within the band, but that was the proverbial calm before the storm to come. “I found out on Twitter we have a new single,” McCauley said, introducing the quiet, emotive and drumless “Big House.”
During a Q&A session, which the band has recently worked into its sets, one fan asked “why don’t I like your new album at all?,” which spurred some of the aforementioned fure. “Why did you come at all, idiot?” McCauley said, before leading the group into an impromptu “Suck My Balls” (essentially a reworking of the band’s “Spend The Night” ).
“I hope that answered your question. Now here’s a new one for the person that doesn’t like it,” the confrontational frontman said, leading the group into the catchy “Mr. Sticks” and then “Thyme,” a spooky number with drummer Dennis Ryan on vocals.
The NRBQ cover “12 Bar Blues” and the cocaine anthem “The Bump” led to the set-closing “Easy,” the first song from Deer Tick’s 2009 breakthrough record, “Born On Flag Day.” The band capped of its raucous set with an encore of “Ashamed” and “Let’s All Go To The Bar,” which found the band spraying the crowd with beer.
The evening kicked off with a solid set from up-and-coming Texan Robert Ellis, including the Dawes-like minor-key tune “Houston,” and a high-energy performance by J. Roddy Walston and The Business.
Walston and company were an instant party starter, with the pianist/vocalist bandleader channeling Jerry Lee Lewis through songs like “Don’t Break The Needle” and tunes from their new album “Essential Tremors” including “Marigold” and “Midnight Cry.” The band was originally scheduled to headline the TLA; moving their set to Union Transfer was a good move, providing a name opener and a fun and well-received warmup for Deer Tick.