Upper Street in Islington on a Tuesday night is pretty busy, the bars are doing decent business and Dionysis Savvopoulos (I'm told) is playing a rare London show at The Union Chapel, but the reason for my visit this evening is the oddly named Deer Tick are in town on their ‘Twice Is Nice’ tour. The Providence, Rhode Island act recently released not one, but two albums that have featured heavily in recent weeks on the RGM stereo. I’m not quite sure what to expect, but I’m looking forward to it all the same.
The chosen venue for this evening’s entertainment is Islington Assembly Halls (capacity approx. 800 including around 200 in the balcony which looks closed this evening). A good sized room with a high stage, good sound and two bars at the rear it’s effectively a big brother to regular RGM haunt Bush Hall. The building lay dormant for many years until Islington Council reopened the venue after an extensive refurb in 2010 and they’ve done a fine job. If I had to level one small criticism, which can be aimed at nearly every London venue, then £5.90 for a pint seems outrageous.
With the band promoting two albums hence the ‘Twice Is Nice’ tour the evening featured two sets. First up the band ambled on stage with acoustic guitars for a set of folky, Americana. The stage was lit with predominantly red hue to achieve a lounge effect as Deer Tick Vol. 1 featured heavily in the opening set. For the acoustic-based part of the evening the quartet (multi-instrumentalist Robert Crowell left the band after the Vol. 1 and 2 sessions) mixed things up well with changes of instrumentation as mandolin, penny whistle and a little guitar (as McCauley dubbed it) all featured, while the band displayed impressive four-part vocal harmonies. ‘Sea of Clouds’ highlighted band leader John J McCauley's pleasing vocal drawl while ‘Me and My Man’ found drummer Dennis Ryan handling lead vocals with aplomb. ‘Card House’ was another winner with Ian O’Neil’s vocal and mandolin prominent. Good to see Chris Ryan sticking to upright bass for the majority of the first set, always a good thing with acoustic material. The set concluded with a fiery acoustic guitar duel complete with unexpected synchronised wielding of guitars, before the rhythm section performed an impressive solo to round out the set, while Ian and John rushed about clearing away their own effects gear and guitars, not something you see very often. McCauley had quipped they needed to make room to rock.
The band returned for set two with electric guitars firmly in hand and fulfilled that promise to rock. Honestly if you’ve only ever heard Vol. 1 you’d be running screaming for the doors. The guys combine melody with grit and reminded me of old favourites Soul Asylum for some reason. The reports that the guys play shows of Nirvana covers as Deervana suddenly make perfect sense. The crowd seemed to swell considerably at this point, which was kinda strange as there didn’t seem to be any more people in the room (the room was decently full without being crowded). The band are obviously having a lot of fun as they hammered through their set with loose-limbed guitarist Ian O’Neill a study in perpetual energy while Dennis Ryan proved a beefy powerhouse of infectiously likeable enthusiasm. Mixing the old with the new they even found room for a cover tune or two with McCauley displaying an impressive Shane McGowan on a ferocious ‘White City’ while by the time he reached the Billy Preston classic ‘You Are So Beautiful’ his voice was reduced to an, intentional, croaky rasp.
With a career that dates back to 2004, John J McCauley and Deer Tick don’t really have anything to prove and seem content to follow their own muse. A two set show of such variety would be a stretch for many bands but Vol 1 and 2 are two sides of the same coin which the band pull off with skill and no little humour. The did a great job of reminding me that while the majority of my listening these days is in the Americana and folk fields sometimes you just can’t beat an electric guitar turned up to eleven.