Having missed the first opener, New Orleans' Dead People, I arrived in time to catch Deer Tick's New York compatriots The Virgin Forest, whose set was comprised of rockabilly-influenced guitar work delivered with red-eyed, murder-ballad menace. Oh, except even that tone was shattered every now and then with little flourishes like front man Scott Stapleton's penchant for using Atari-style sound effects on the keyboard stationed awkwardly in front of him. Stapelton's voice was easily the best surprise of the night, with its high and clear treble-y vibrato — it was like Jimmie Dale Gilmore crooning over a Bad Seeds track. Deer Tick's guitarist Ian O'Neill joined them onstage for their final song, which was a total sludge-rocker consisting entirely of Stapleton howling the refrain "rats in a cage" with increasing intensity until yipping lady sex-noises while prancing and bobbing like a rare bird making a mating display.
Deer Tick took the stage all dressed in grey blazers and button-down shirts with ties, not unlike The Del McCoury Band, well, if The Del McCoury Band had been sleeping in a van. As far as Deer Tick audience participation is concerned, here is the Golden Rule: When charismatic frontman John McCauley ingests any alcoholic substance whatsoever, cheer him. When John McCauley opens a beer with his teeth, scream. When John McCauley spits the dislodged beer cap into the audience, scream and leap to intercept it like Mardi Gras beads or a fly ball. When John McCauley, during a song, kneels to the ground and picks up a beer handsfree and deep-throats it while still strumming, lose your damn mind. Yes, you too can help this man deepen his alcoholism. In fact, it seems that everyone's depending on it.
Sport-drinking aside, Deer Tick is a group of undeniably accomplished musicians. McCauley's guitar solos and slide-playing are so tasteful you practically want them to linger on your tongue. Everyone shares vocals, everyone is a master of their machine, and sometimes more: when keyboardist Rob Crowell picked up a saxophone and launched into a deliciously sleaze-tastic solo during "Ashamed," despite the apparent irony, the crowd howled in appreciation. The true secret of the band, however, lies in its explosive drumming. It becomes apparent that even Deer Tick would be just another alt-country band if they didn't blast out their percussion with the fury of a pagan metal band. It creates, sustains, and reinvigorates the energy of the set as needed.
After a series of delightful cover-medleys, including some Hank Williams and an uncanny version of "Sleep Walk," the band invited all members on the bill to join them onstage for a beer-spitting, mic-stand throwing, crowd-surfing finale featuring their power-pop anthem "Let's All Go to the Bar," from the album "Divine Providence," to be released on Tuesday. The song, like many of their more fast-paced numbers, musically references everything from Elvis Costello & the Attractions to The Ramones all at once. What stands as indisputable fact is that no matter how derivative or conventional their songwriting might feel at times, or how long for this earth McCauley might actually be, Deer Tick is a raucous, hilarious, and worthy live show. That is, so I've heard, as long as they're lively and drinking and not already wasted.