Country music has thrived and evolved in places outside the South, from the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens to the sunburned beach jams of Jimmy Buffett to the bleak Illinois alt-country of Uncle Tupelo. Deer Tick brings country to a similarly incongruous locale: the city of Providence, Rhode Island, a river town at the north tip of Narragansett Bay. Despite its well-heeled Brown University students and a very high-profile mob presence, Providence remains a blue-collar, industrial city of working poor. The music of Deer Tick is the soundtrack of bitterly cold winters and dead-end jobs, labor that rubs flesh off of your hands, and the effects of ending the workday with a familiar oblivion of shots and beers and cigarettes.
Devoid of Southern accent or Jesus-y, gospel-brunch salvation, the hungover country music of Deer Tick ends up sounding like a gritty classic-rock take on the outsider songwriting of John Prine or Townes Van Zandt. A lot of this has to do with songwriter John McCauley, who began Deer Tick as a solo project but has since accumulated a band of likeminded musicians and expanded the lineup to five. I meet them before a show at McMenamins' Kennedy School in Portland, the first of several Northwest stops.
They're eating a proper, sit-down meal in the restaurant, a rare luxury. "I hate eating right before a show," admits McCauley, who's used to an egg sandwich early in the day and a few glasses of whiskey before taking the stage.
For this show, as well as the others on this McMenamins "Great Northwest Music Tour," Deer Tick is given the indulgence—or the burden, depending on how you look at it—of filling up three full sets of material. It's a little daunting, but McCauley has plenty of material to choose from, and the band isn't afraid to throw in a handful of covers. Still, before the show they're struggling to fill in all the slots in the setlist they've jotted down on a piece of hotel stationery. The Bud Light "Real Men of Genius" theme is batted around at one point. Finally, with a couple empty slots left, McCauley writes "PLAY IT" in all capital letters and leaves it at that.
And Deer Tick commands the stage with such fervor that everyone in the room—from the surprisingly big crowd packed into the Kennedy School gym to the band members themselves—is taken aback by how good it is. Having room to stretch out becomes the band, who doesn't jam so much as follow the thread of each song to its logical conclusion. And they keep it simple, with McCauley's lyrically complex but musically straightforward songs bolstered by the band's triple guitar attack and the powerful, excellent drumming of Dennis Ryan.
The first set closes with a spooky, nearly a cappella rendition of "Dirty Dishes," which they sing off mic, letting their voices leap out into the room without any help from the PA. Then mid-song, McCauley jumps behind the drums and the band thrashes for a few bars, then the instruments are silenced again as they conclude the song with just vocal harmonies. It's a spellbinding early peak, but the band has two more sets to go, and the night eventually ends with McCauley aping Joe Cocker on an impromptu cover of "With a Little Help from My Friends." They're worn out, but the looser this band gets, the better they sound, and no one in the room wants them to stop playing.