About halfway through Deer Tick’s set Thursday night at Lincoln Center’s The Allen Room, it occurred to me how many different venues I’ve seen the band play in. I’ve seen them on city-center festival stages, crammed into tiny clubs, and even John McCauley handling a solo set or two. The Allen Room, I found, is unique even amongst all those distinct settings.
Situated on the 6th floor of Lincoln Center, the glass wall behind the stage looks out right onto Columbus Circle, the statue of Christopher himself standing tall at dead center. Traffic zips and crawls up West 59th, red and yellow and white headlights adding to the blue hues splashed onto the glass windows. The orchestra seating climbs towards the back wall in two-row increments, while tables adorned with red clothes and candles occupy the space in front of the stage. It’s a venue typically reserved for jazz performances, but here I was, sitting in a chair, ready to watch a rock show.
Of course it wasn’t really a rock show. With everyone save for bassist Christopher Ryan seated on a stool, Deer Tick knew where they were, and they were completely smitten by the idea. “Apparently the American Songbook people have been trying to get us to play here for years,” McCauley said early in the set. “If I’d know that… We’d have played here by now.” Again and again, the band members remarked on how special the evening was, and how pleased they were to be playing there.
In light of the scenery, McCauley opted to stick with an acoustic guitar for the evening, noting that his electric instrument was in a trailer out in Brooklyn. Opener “The Rock” made it obvious that the Rhode Island rockers weren’t going to be tearing down any walls. The big breakout that comes with the song’s first verse was noticeably subtler – still a breakout, but without the blaring horns or hard-strummed guitar.
This sort of reworking would follow for most of the songs that night. Negativity‘s “The Curtain” had its snark and anger transformed into a slow-burning, beaten-down resilience. “The Bump”, a raucous barroom stomp of a number on Divine Providence, was delivered with drawn out swagger. When the band started the callbacks for McCauley’s lyrics, guitarist Ian O’Neil let a slight chuckle escape. It wasn’t because the song wasn’t working, but just that turning those rowdy shouts into something even slightly reserved was clearly not how it was intended to be sung.
However, like much of the 20-song set, it really did work. In the end, that’s what was most terribly impressive about the performance, and ultimately the band itself. Their malleability is not only admirable, but reveals just how well-structured these renowned bar-rockers really are. They’re able to make fiery numbers fit the milieu without losing their spark, just as they can put the shine on toned-down numbers like “Clownin’ Around” or “Christ Jesus”. (The latter, with McCauley alone at a piano while the taillights of cars turning through Columbus Circle curved off in the reflection over his head, was particularly striking.)
Before going into “Big House”, McCauley made a remark that highlighted the musicians’ self-awareness and adaptability. “A song like this really thrives and can be itself in a setting like this,” he said. “When we’ve got all the rock ‘n’ roll amps, I just don’t think it does the song justice.” What followed was a solemn, heart-felt performance of a song that clearly has deep personal meaning to the singer.
Still, the frontman never sacrificed his goofy, often awkward, humor. He mocked himself for how he yells “thank you!” after each song, continually referred to O’Neil as his “business associate,” and even led the room in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for a gentleman in the crowd (followed by a story about how drummer Dennis Ryan was so in love with the ditty that the band listened to 40 different versions on their ride through Connecticut. “It was magical,” Ryan recalled).
With each new venue I see the band in, my appreciation and respect for them grows. No matter where they are, they bring exactly what is needed to provide an incredible performance, whether that’s beer-and-sweat debauchery, or carefully deconstructed presentation of talented songwriting. And all the while, they never once surrender what makes them Deer Tick.
“This is really special to be playing here,” O’Neil said near the end of the set. “We don’t often get to play places like this…” He trailed off with a laugh. Yes, this kind of show wasn’t typical for Deer Tick, but if the burned-down, seated renditions of that evening are any indication, maybe they more often should be.
I had never been to the Allen Room before last night. But frankly, after that performance, I can’t wait to go back. In fact, my advice to anyone reading this: if you see a band you’re into is coming to play Lincoln Center, find a way to get there. It’s a beautiful place, and what it brings out of a band is nothing but their best.
The Dream’s in the Ditch
Baltimore Blues No. 1
In Our Time (w/ Vanessa Carlton)
Now It’s Your Turn
Not So Dense
These Old Shoes
Mr. Cigarette (Paul Westerberg cover)
Art Isn’t Real (City of Sin)