Deer Tick deliver a mixed bag

A review of Deer Tick at the Paradise Rock Club on June 15, 2012

, Contributing Writer

Deer Tick is best served with a shot and a chaser. The Providence band’s blues-and booze-inspired repertoire lends itself to a drunken all-night diner with gleaming Harleys perpetually parked in front, where the jukebox has Tom Waits and raucous sing-alongs come standard. Friday at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, Deer Tick showcased their technical proficiency in sloshy country rock and their ability to make sure sing-alongs always come standard.

After responding to the audience’s cheerful greeting with an appropriately hungover grunt, frontman John McCauley launched the band into its first string of songs and they did not disappoint. Opening with three of their oldest and best songs — “Ashamed” and “Baltimore Blues No. 1” off their 2007 debut album War Elephant and “Easy” off 2009’s Born on Flag Day — Deer Tick hooked the crowd early. Each of the aforementioned songs shows off the band’s greatest assets: simple, imperfect but earnest songwriting, understated killer guitar hooks and McCauley’s growling voice, which sounds as if it’s forever coated in Marlboro residue and Jack Daniels.

Unfortunately, the rest of the set failed to live up to the early peak set by those opening tracks. The reason for this, simply, is that Deer Tick’s latest album, Divine Providence, is not as strong as its predecessors. It finds the band eschewing the bluesy twang that gave them their niche in favor of a straight-up anthem rock that can only be described as bland. Worse, the storytelling that made Deer Tick’s early work so rewarding is nowhere to be found in these new tunes. It has been replaced by boring classic rock riffs and an abundance of drinking references reminiscent of a college freshman boasting of his experience with keg parties.

It’s unfortunate, but natural, that a substantial part of the set was devoted to this newer material, especially since the band found a need to expand these songs with solos and jams that lasted a bit too long, giving an impression that the band’s enjoyment came before that of the audience. For periods of “Walls” and a well-chosen cover of The Replacements’ “Kiss Me On The Bus,” the band withdrew to their own world of unconstrained guitar solos, which sounded fine except any moment that McCauley isn’t spinning a tale with his croaky voice is one in which Deer Tick departs from their greatest strength. That said, the free-wheeling asides weren’t completely unwelcome, as the blissfully psychedelic intro to “Mange” off 2010’s Black Dirt Sessions, proved.

Divine Providence opener “The Bump”, which steals its first line from the much better Girls song “Lust for Life”, sets the tone for an album emptily celebrating intoxication and little else. “Let’s All Go To The Bar” is exactly how it sounds. “Walkin’ Out the Door” is one of several new songs on which McCauley does not sing and his vocal absence is noticeable. Guitarist Ian O’Neil (formerly of New Jersey punk-band Titus Andronicus), does his best Patrick Stickles impression but the song is just not strong. “Main Street” sounds okay, but it sounded better forty-five years ago when the Rolling Stones built that now-well-worn sound (that McCauley sprinkles Stones references throughout, doesn’t make it any more original).

Friday’s show was saved towards the end of the set by a return to the band’s earlier material. A minimalistic, almost a cappella version of “Dirty Dishes”, was a reminder of what makes Deer Tick so appealing. “These Old Shoes” pushed off that foothold with its chugging drums and unfolding story as the crowd chanted along throughout.

Opening act Turbo Fruits was a long-haired, hard-rocking, Coors-drinking punk outfit from Nashville. The four-piece has the shaggy look befitting the cover of Rolling Stone and a no-nonsense guitar rock sound that would surely find favor within those pages. They were an appropriate opener for Deer Tick; both share an enthusiasm for chemical inspiration, galloping drums and classic rock. Their set was highlighted by the standout “Mama’s Mad Cos I Fried My Brain”.

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