Because, as I have just had pointed out to me, I have foolishly mistakenly read their name as MegaFUN, when the three members of MegaFAUN hove into view, led by a large bearded man with a banjo and a big grin, I somewhat feared they would prove to be relentlessly hearty, the distressing musical equivalent of bouncy castles, red noses, playground japes, a particularly unwelcome wackiness. The kind of jollity, in other words, that makes you want to run screaming from its larkish presence.
Such bleak preconceptions are thankfully put to rest almost immediately, with the opening song, “Kaufmann’s Ballad”, banjo-led, but hardly the gurning knees-up I had for a moment expected. Gorgeous three-part harmonies are quickly to the fore, inevitably bringing to mind vintage CSN and, more latterly, I suppose, Fleet Foxes.
The song unfolds at a singular pace, its momentum at times apparently suspended, unhurried to the point of walking backwards. What follows is pretty much equally captivating, a beguiling melange of usually unexpected things.
The overriding impression, though, crudely put, is a mix of the rustic and vaguely experimental, resulting in a kind of hillbilly prog rock on a song called “Impressions Of the Past”, which starts with creamy, sun-kissed harmonies and ends up sounding like something not too far removed from Alice Cooper’s prog-epic, “Halo Of Flies”.
They used to be, of course, in a previous incarnation, called De Yarmond Edison, which consisted of the present trio, plus Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. With Vernon’s departure in 2006, they relocated from their native Wisconsin to North Carolina, immersing themselves along the way in the myriad musical traditions you can hear in their music tonight. These range from Appalachian porch-front harmonies, to white-noise improvisations, by way of stupendous drummer Joe Westerlund’s fondness for skittering African and South American rhythms.
If Megafun briefly confound, you know where you are from the off with Deer Tick.
As the band plug in, what can safely be predicted from the appearance alone of John Jospeh MCauley III – who with his tattoos, George Thoroughgood & The Destroyers T-shirt looks like he’s just wandered off the set of My Name Is Earl – is that a certain rock’n’roll rowdiness is about to ensue.
And it does, spectacularly.
There’s a bit of instrumental throat-clearing, feedback, drum rolls, McCauley takes a quick gulp from a small bottle of Jack Daniel’s and they’re off into a scalding take on Bo Diddley’s immortal “Who Do You Love?”, a perfect point of departure, things taking off from here, what follows mostly breathlessly exciting, noisy and raw.
In his recent Uncut Americana Album Of the Month review of the band’s new album, Born On Flag Day, Rob Hughes several times compared Deer Tick to Green On Red. Rob had a point, in that a lot of McCauley’s songs look at the world and the things that happen in it from the aspect of life’s long-suffering losers, bar-dogs and whiskey-soaked dreamers.
Tonight’s more immediate reference points, though, are perhaps those legends of American roots rock, The Blasters, with powerful hints, too, of the reckless abandon of The Replacements. McCauley’s songs have something in common with both Dave Alvin’s stripped-down blue-collar narratives and Paul Westerberg’s hoarse lyricism, wry fatalism and defiant holler, while the band make a noise comparable to The Blasters’ lean rockabilly ferocity and The Replacements’ raging howl.
On a couple of occasions, when things get really out of hand, I’m also thrillingly reminded of the unfettered gusto of a rock’n’roll hellion like Joe “King” Carrasco, who mixed similar elements of 60’s garage rock, Chuck Berry, Texas twang, vintage R&B, cantina blues and a taste for colourful mayhem. On more reflective numbers like “Hell On Earth”, you may also hear a bit of Joe Ely or Butch Hancock, which makes you think Deer Tick must’ve grown up in Lubbock, or somewhere like it, when in fact they originally from Providence, Rhode Island.
Of the songs from Born On Flag Day they play tonight, the stand-out is the album’s killer opening track, “Easy”, an absolute stone classic they should never be allowed to drop from their repertoire, however many more great songs they go on to write. The last couple of minutes are so electrifying it may have struck you that its hurtling momentum might only be stopped by a road block or machine gun fire, probably both, with air support very likely a necessary option.
They end with another roaring cover, this time a stupendous version of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait”, which in terms of wishing them a speedy return is just about how I feel.
Tremendous, and then some.