Last Thursday evening marked my first trip to Castaways, the tiny music venue-cum-bar tucked away in downtown Ithaca most often filled with townies and students alike. When I arrived there for country-rock outfit Deer Tick’s show, I was struck by the small-town charm of the place, a tiny bar that just happened to have a stage overflowing with instruments and equipment nestled towards the back. This kind of scene was new to me, but for the music enthusiasts there, this was just like any other night: an evening of bonding with fellow show-goers, taking in the grimy scenery and sharing one another’s love for music. Playing a set relying heavily on their latest record, Divine Providence, the rollicking quintet, led by the charismatic yet slightly sleepy John McCauley, certainly brought the love to Castaways on Thursday. The cozy vibe of Castaways in combination with Deer Tick’s country-rock charm made for an experience that made for a memorable night of musical revelry, even if the show itself wandered off into monotony and misdirection after a while.
Deer Tick’s set was not as much a performance as much as it was a time for both fans and players to come together and enjoy each other’s company through their love for music. Deer Tick was not playing and singing for us; they were playing and singing with us. This could not be articulated as accurately as when McCauley led a sing-along on opening number “The Bump,” wailing “I suggest you move/We’re full-grown men/We act like kids.” This youthful playfulness that the band set forth from the get-go marked what would become an evening of a shared joy between the band and the crowd. But as much as both the musicians and the fans seemed to be enjoying themselves, the band may have overstayed their welcome. Even with a set that clocked in at over two hours in length including Deer Tick’s set, some solo tunes from McCauley, and new material with a freshly formed supergroup featuring McCauley and opening acts Thomas Hardy and the Guards, the boys of Deer Tick seemed to have enjoyed themselves a little too much.
Deer Tick’s set started out as a great performance upheld by tight, well-rehearsed work by the band with a sprinkle of some spontaneous jam sessions. The effect was great, even when they took things down a notch for McCauley to perform a lovely solo set that included a Tom Waits cover. But after about an hour and a half, when the band reappeared along with Hardy and the Guards for new material as part of their newly formed band, the show took a turn for the worse.
On their own, Hardy and the Guards were mediocre at best; Hardy put on his coffee house crooner hat while the Guards put on a pop show complete with a smoke machine and the token hippie chick. And when all three bands joined forces, the show became greatly uneven, as the three acts performed in a way that was very far off from what Deer Tick had just played. The new stuff was louder, heavier and overall had an indistinctive direction. Every song sounded like it was the show’s grand finale, but alas, it wasn’t. To their credit, they eventually took a break from their overworked new stuff by returning to Deer Tick’s fan favorite “Christ Jesus” from their 2007 debut War Elephant. But even so, the show became less and less satisfying as the night progressed, and even the band seemed aware of this, as they pulling out different tricks on each song — grinding the guitar against an amplifier, for instance — in an effort to keep the crowd interested.
As prolonged and mismatched as the show was, however, there was still a clear appreciation between the performers and the fans, thanks in large part to the atmosphere of the venue. Castaways could not have created a more perfect environment for the down-and-dirty country rock that Deer Tick brought on Thursday night. Yes, the show itself was so-so, but the night was all about the experience of coming together with fellow music lovers to enjoy a merry night of chatting, beer spillage and, of course, some tunes.