Possibly one of the best times to see any tour is the last night of an opening act’s run, especially one that is close pals with the headlining band. Everyone’s a little looser and you get an intimate look at the type of strange and funny friendships close quarters on the road breed.
Such was the case last night at Webster Hall, where Robert Ellis performed his final set opening for Deer Tick on their Negativity tour. It’s worth noting up front that this was bound to be an unusual night for Deer Tick fans; Negativity is their most, well, negative album, riddled with heartbreak and regret. The barroom brawl attitude of earlier efforts took a complete backseat, and Ellis as an opener seemed to solidify that emotional 180—the Houston, Texas country folk singer and guitarist takes his cues from the genre’s early beginnings, delivering true-to-heart croons over pared down song constructions.
As he took the stage with just a guitar, a stool, and his longtime pedal steel player Will Van Horn, one got the impression people were expecting more—particularly since Van Horn was almost completely obscured, facially, by a gallon-hat brim. When Ellis got down and finger-pickin’ dirty a song or two in, it was delightful to hear the roars from the audience. Soon enough, though, the stage was warmed with appearances by Deer Tick’s Ian O’Neill, Rob Crowell, and Dennis and Chris Ryan for a full-band rendition of “Good Intentions” and the crescendo-laden “Houston”. (FYI: Dennis garnered some of the louder catcalls and “I love yous” of the night.)
Later, John McCauley joined in for a rendition of Middle Brother’s “Daydreaming”, the two sharing the mic, heads close as brothers. Kissing his friend on both cheeks McCauley walked off to the balcony to take in the remainder, commenting, “It was such an amazing collaboration—so great, I’d do it again.” As Ellis finished with Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, he urged all the guys in the room to “finally turn to that pretty lady you’ve been eyeing all night and ask her to dance,” though noting he didn’t expect anything as “this is New York, and heard y’all don’t do that here.” He was right, but it didn’t kill the poignancy.
Deer Tick’s own set seemed less sure of itself; the band might not be ready to bog anyone down with their most recent album’s less euphoric tone (to our loss), and alternated almost song for song with something old, something new, something barroom, and something depressingly blue. The opening was brash right out of the gate, literally, with “The Rock”, Negativity’s first track that requires a saxxy explosion —answered live by the four-piece brass band that took the stage just beforehand. That first eruption might as well have promised a show no lower-key than any other tour, despite Negativity’s change of pace.
“We’re gonna try to keep the energy up even though we’re playing some depressing, shitty songs,” McCauley remarked from his seated post.
“We love your depressing shitty songs!” one guy yelled. Though it was only one guy, and as the night went on it became clear that Negativity wasn’t the main draw—it’s just the Deer Tick name, McCauley, and their rock-jock reputation. The new Petty-esque “Dreams In The Ditch” with it’s four-part harmony and panty-dropping solo was everything you wanted it to be, and transitioned nicely to the jazzy “Baltimore Blue No. 1”, their first hit (and a notably slow one at that). Yet as they vacillated all evening between slow and fast, well-known and new, you got the impression they’re conscious that their barhound image and the songs associated with it are what got them this far, no matter how much they’ve matured since.
For instance: “Clowin’ Around”, an old favorite, nabbed a much greater applause than Negativity’s “Big House”, penned about a heroin addict friend of McCauley’s, though both are equally metaphorical and heartfelt. A throwback to “Funny Word” picked up the hardcore fans against that front rail, and then that eager energy—and by that I mean attention span—seemed to drop afterwards during the arguably better “Mr. Sticks” and the definitely better, beautifully intricate “Thyme” (which McCauley devastated with a behind-the-head guitar solo). Not to blame the band—after all, these new tracks are less than two months old, and in need of some digestion from fans used to “Let’s All Go To The Bar”.
Robert Ellis returned to assist on “Miss K”—perhaps the night’s best performance, for getting both everyone on stage and the whole venue for once singing along. Yet watching the perfectly synched call and response guitarplay of Ellis and McCauley and recalling the earlier more heartfelt duet, it was hard to get excited about the old songs that felt like requisite crowd pleasers. Negativity got great reception for showing stylistic evolution and emotional maturity; a band clearly in a different place than before. It was slightly depressing, then, to see fans not as on board with that new direction as, say, critics.
On one of the last songs, “The Bump”, it was interesting to consider the chorus: “We’re full grown men/ But we act like kids/ We’ll face the music/ Next time we roll in.” Will you, though, Deer Tick? We heard that line last time around, and you did deliver—at least, in recording. Will your live show grow up too? And, perhaps more importantly, will your fans be ready if it does?
Photography by Ester Segretto.
Robert Ellis Setlist:
Daydreaming (Middle Brother cover)
Help Me Make It Through The Night (Kris Kristofferson cover)
Deer Tick Setlist:
Dreams In The Ditch
Baltimore Blue No. 1
Standing At The Threshold
Let’s All Go To The Bar