Deer Tick performs at The Charm City Bluegrass Festival in April 2019. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)
In so many ways, Deer Tick is the quintessential modern American band. Started sometime in the mid-2000s and officially releasing War Elephant in 2007, theirs is a sound born of something many of us can find familiar: as at home on a small stage in the corner of a bar/coffeehouse, in a party club, or on a big stage in the middle of a national park.
They came into Wolf Trap ostensibly touring either Mayonnaise (recently released and gently confusing companion album to last year’s double album) or Deer Tick Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, their first releases since Negativity in 2013. With John McCauley decked out in mint green and the rest of the band dressed to party like it’s either 2019 or 1975, the band brought their trademark rock and roll (minus the endless booze of the early days).
Stream Mayonnaise by Deer Tick on Spotify:
Deer Tick has become somewhat more democratic, with Ian O’Neil and Dennis Ryan taking the lead at times, but the songs are still very much driven by John, the main voice of the band since the beginning. First started as John’s solo project, then adding the Ryan brothers (Dennis on drums, Chris on bass), and eventually including Ian (and others, at times), it makes sense that the band would eventually morph into something a little different. Ian’s “Dreams in the Ditch” and “Hope Is Big” have become standouts, and Dennis’s “Me and My Man” evoking the simple joy of walking a dog in the park is more than a simple joy of its own, always ending with a quick, crashing drum solo.
These moments of John stepping away from the mic allowed some textural changes to their sound, to their live show. Ian still strutted like a madman, holding his guitar in the air while high-stepping and snarling; Dennis still thrashed behind the kit, sometimes almost loose, but always tight. Chris never failed to pose at the right moments, to lean into the show. And John still did his backbends (for which he must work out on a damn-near daily basis because there is absolutely no way knees can handle that without some kind of very specific muscular fortification). But it felt a little different, a little more like controlled, a little more organized; the band looked like they’re having fun without relying on starting a party, and that’s a kind of special joy.
At Wolf Trap on June 20, Deer Tick brought a few gifts for the audience, many of whom danced and sang along on the lawn. As is often the case when falling in love with new music, the moments at the beginning stand out, so the privilege of “Easy” from Born on Flag Day alongside “Twenty Miles” from The Black Dirt Sessions is hard to overstate, followed by the transcendent “Christ Jesus” (either from War Elephant or The Black Dirt Sessions, depending on your perspective). “Easy” was the first song I heard way back in college, but “Christ Jesus” still represents the first time I truly fell in love with the band and their songs, the moment when I decided to always buy their albums.
And then, toward the end of the (too-short) set, John and Ian set ablaze the giant Wolf Trap stage with dueling guitars on “Jumpstarting” before bringing out “Ashamed” from War Elephant, eliciting a venue-wide singalong. They ended the show with a brief rendition of “You Are So Beautiful” to close their set.
I’d love to see Deer Tick headline a show coming through the area again, maybe at the 9:30 Club. I hope we get to see them again soon.