Deer Tick + Guards: 31 October 2011 – San Diego, CA


It’s All Hallows Eve, which means it’s one of the best nights of the year to see live music. This is due to an increasing trend in recent years where bands take the occasion to cover other bands that have influenced them. Perhaps this traces to the mid-’90s when Phish started a tradition of covering a classic album in its entirety as their musical costume. It’s a fun concept since it increases anticipation about what kind of tricks and treats might go down at a Halloween show.

The concept has caught fire on the jamband circuit but also seems to be spreading into the indie rock world. Guards are opening up for Deer Tick tonight and the New York City band is not going to let the headliners from Rhode Island have all the Halloween fun. Guards frontman/guitarist Richie James Follin seems to be dressed as some sort of Black Jesus, with the rest of the band decked out as disciples of some sort from biblical times. The band hits the stage with a tease of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, which is always great to hear in its entirety but Guards use it as sort of a stepping stone back to the era from whence it came. The sound is crisp and clear though and the room is fairly full of costumed revelers interested in the band’s dark and lo-fi yet psychedelic sound.

“Long Time” has a melodic garage vibe that sounds like it could have been transported from the ’60s, with its bluesy hypnotic groove and loud guitars. A droney jam follows, bringing to mind possible influences such as the 13th Floor Elevators and/or the Black Angels. The band’s sound is raw, but then there’s an influx of melodic pop elements that conjure a more unique sonic flavor that’s hard to categorize. The organ work enhances the band’s retro vibe further, a sound that definitely stands out in this day and age.

Follin’s voice is swamped in reverb throughout the set, which could be viewed as effects overkill but it also seems to be an integral aspect of the band’s aura. “Resolution of One” features an upbeat sound that gets the room rocking and shows the band in their most infectious light, with a big sound and catchy chorus. Guards are clearly a good match for this bill. The group is definitely staking out some sonic territory that’s off the beaten path, but it gives them a relatively unique vantage point from which to approach listeners compared to the rest of the crowded indie rock field.

It’s a colorful crowd to observe at the set break with everything from zombies and vampires to superheroes and sitcom characters making for a vibrant scene. Halloween is a night to hit the town and see a show, even if it is a Monday. Deer Tick gets involved too of course. Frontman John McCauley appears to be one of Santa’s elves while keyboardist Rob Crowell is Elmo. Guitarist Ian O’Neil is a retro Bob Dylan with a ’60s afro and New York Knicks-style jersey, while bassist Christopher Dale Ryan sports what look like viking braids of some sort.

Some fans wonder if the band might be about to use the occasion to throw down one of their already legendary “Deervana” sets, covering Nirvana for a full set, such as they did at the SXSW Festival in stunning fashion this past spring. But the band opens with “The Bump” from their new Divine Providence LP, with McCauley singing about his “lust for life” and being “grown men who act like kids”. It kicks off a raucous show that focuses on the band’s own repertoire of increasingly popular yet diverse rock ‘n’ roll, but with some Halloween tricks and treats as well.

“Easy” has a well-seasoned sound with both McCauley’s soulful vocals and the band’s tight playing giving the vibe of a band with a musical maturity beyond their years. McCauley takes a moment to acknowledge two ladies dressed as Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons from Kiss, thanking Paul and Gene for attending and throwing in a “Black Diamond” tease before proceeding. “Main Street” is a rocker from the new LP that keeps the energy level up. But then the band dips back to their first album for the Americana gem “Ashamed”, switching gears and sounding more like Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses. Keyboardist Crowell also delivers a great sax solo here, as the band veers into a stellar jam that takes on a surreal flavor watching Elmo blow the horn.

Most bands these days are content to mine just one sound, but McCauley has established himself as one of the most talented singer/songwriters of the current generation by dabbling in a variety of styles. This in turn makes Deer Tick one of the more promising young bands on the scene, for you know they’ll pursue their own muse wherever it leads.

“In the spirit of Halloween, we are now the Deerplacements,” announces McCauley, throwing another curveball as the band rocks out on a trio of Replacements tunes including “Bastards of the Young” and “Waitress in the Sky”. The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg is clearly a big influence and McCauley impersonates him just as well as Kurt Cobain, showing himself to be one of modern rock’s greatest chameleons.

But McCauley and crew also later come through for the fans who brought Deervana expectations, starting when they throw a “Something in the Way” jam into the middle of “These Old Shoes” which shares some melancholy bluesy flavor. It’s a deep moment that mesmerizes the club. Deer Tick’s own “Dirty Dishes” has a similar effect, with McCauley delivering one of his most heartfelt tunes about dreams that didn’t come true.

McCauley continues to dish out the soulful flavor on a solo version of “Cake and Eggs”, a romantic tune from the new LP about being able to count on that special someone.

A solo version of “Houston, TX” scores as well with McCauley’s gritty vocals touching the room on a collective level, as the crowd sings along on the catchy tune about an empty heart that’s moving on. Then the band throws caution to the wind and launches into an electrifying rendition of Nirvana’s “School”. The serious Nirvana fans in the room go are loving it, although it sadly seems as if much of the crowd is not familiar with the deep cut. This might explain why it’s the last Nirvana song of the night.

A raucous version of “Let’s All Go to the Bar” wraps up the show with festive punk flavor. Afterward, the band sits on a bench outside the club, still in costume, entertaining small talk from fans. It’s refreshing to see a down to Earth vibe from such a talented band whose only problem seems to be lack of exposure. If Deer Tick had come along in the early ’90s, they would likely have been huge stars. As it is, their star is still rising and the sky would seem the limit.