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Show Review: Middle Brother + Dawes + Deer Tick [Metro; Chicago; 3-12-11]

Rare is the occasion when you can find a triple bill of bands touring together where all three deserve to headline every night. The trouble is, naturally, that only one band can truly headline. When two headliners share the stage for multiple dates together the decision on headliners is sometimes an evenly split rotation from night to night or occasionally a luck of the draw. When it’s three bands though, how does such a decision get made? In the case of Deer Tick, Dawes and Middle Brother, there are special circumstances that make the entire process easier. First and foremost, as members of both Deer Tick and Dawes are part of Middle Brother along with Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez, the supergroup takes precedence and closes out the evening because of the collection of talent. Secondly, Dawes have really made a name for themselves in the past few months by scoring a radio hit courtesy of their song “When My Time Comes”. Deer Tick, by contrast, have put out a couple albums and built a strong fan base but haven’t quite scored a genuine hit yet. They do have at least one high profile fan in the form of NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams though, who featured them on his inaugural edition of music-based interviews known as BriTunes. The thing about these three separate but equal bands playing together though is that they all really get along well with one another and are great friends. The dynamic of it, the way it’s all presented, matters less than simply going out, having fun and putting on a great show for people. Funny enough, that’s exactly what they did when their tour ran through Chicago on Saturday night, and you’d probably consider yourself foolish if you skipped even a minute of it.

Deer Tick have always been a force to be reckoned with live, and a venue like the Metro only enhances that intensity. They came flying out of the gate with their naturally playful energy that the crowd was more than happy to eat up. There was bouncing, there was swaying, there were saxophone solos, and there were covers. From the beginning, a number of people mentioned in just general crowd chatter that John McCauley’s vocals were placed too low in the mix because much of what he was saying seemed unintelligible. Considering that the Metro is one of the best-sounding concert venues in Chicago if not the world, they don’t really ever screw up mixing like that. In fact it was more McCauley’s voice with its rather nasal, Bob Dylan charm that made things a bit muddy. That’s no fault of his own, and such a thing should not have prevented most if not everyone from getting a little something out of Deer Tick’s set. They jumped all over their catalogue, from “Something to Brag About” to “Smith Hill” to “Choir of Angels” to “Ashamed” and the massive “Christ Jesus”. There were a handful of new songs too, leaving something to look forward to whenever they get around to putting out another record. The band also started what would become a theme throughout the night, which is the spirit of collaboration. Mid-set they brought out Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez to take the lead on a few songs, perhaps in part because the rest of his band was not on this tour. He sang a new song along with a pair of covers – Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets” followed by Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice”. The transition from The Boss to Nirvana was jarring and weird, but hot damn does Vasquez do a great Kurt Cobain. Deer Tick is playing a set of Nirvana covers at SXSW this upcoming week under the name Deervana, and if Vasquez joins them (he likely will, among others), keep an eye out for some killer YouTube videos. On the whole, it was yet another excellent Deer Tick set in a long line of excellent Deer Tick sets, providing more proof that they’re one of the more engaging live acts around today.

Deer Tick – Piece By Piece and Frame By Frame

Buy Deer Tick’s “Black Dirt Sessions” from Amazon

After a brief break, Dawes came out to do their thing. It’s hard to believe that their debut album “North Hills” came out in 2009, but it’s taken this long for them to get really noticed. They’ve been paying their dues though, consistently touring and playing music festivals whether you’ve known it or not. After a couple quick songs from that first record, they played a new one about their hometown of Los Angeles. What’s moderately funny and also just a touch disappointing is that they’ve already written a couple songs about L.A. before and at some point it just becomes excessive. Still, despite the subject matter the song was good, as was their entire set. One of the best moments came courtesy of their new song “Fire Away”, as frontman Taylor Goldsmith tried something new and got the crowd to sing in divided-by-gender harmony. Not to boost some egos, but it sounded quite good. With just the one album and a couple new songs to play over the course of their hour-long set time, Dawes kept up with the collaborations by bringing their friend Jonny Corndawg out on stage to sing a few of his original country tunes. If you are unfamiliar with Jonny Corndawg, he can often be found wearing the traditional cowboy hat and boots, and he’s got a relatively large catalogue of songs that are both bizarre and heartfelt at the same time. You’d think the guy was a parody of country singers if he didn’t carry himself so earnestly. Yet there’s a sly, oddball sense of humor that permeates his lyrics and makes you sit up and notice what might otherwise be just a collection of country standards. Dawes loves the Corndawg, as does Deer Tick and one would assume Delta Spirit by proxy. They all share a lot of the same qualities, even if their approaches are a little different. After performing 5 of his songs with Dawes, a whole bunch of people rushed the stage, including Matt Vasquez and members of Deer Tick for a set-closing rendition of the Dawes hit “When My Time Comes”. Yeah, it was one massive sing-along where everyone on stage eventually turned their microphones out to the crowd to take over. The collective release of energy was something that had been building all night to that point, and when it finally happened there was such catharsis you knew it wouldn’t be topped.

Dawes – When My Time Comes

Buy Dawes’ “North Hills” from Amazon

Middle Brother began their set with “Blue Eyes” after yet another short break, and it was a smart choice over the beautiful but very slow opening track “Daydreaming” off their debut record. Most bands like to start their sets with the first track of their latest album, but in this case a bouncier and catchier song won out. Of course “Daydreaming” would pop up a few songs into the set anyways, mostly because Middle Brother played every song they’ve put out thus far. But McCauley did an exceptional job with hjs lead vocal on “Daydreaming”, making it one of the evening’s brightest spots. Highlights also included Taylor Goldsmith’s intense vocal performance on “Blood and Guts”, which was heartwrenching on record but even moreso live. The rollicking single “Me Me Me” has been getting a little bit of radio airplay in town, and probably went over best with the crowd during that particular set. The stage completely cleared out as Goldsmith took on “Wilderness” completely on his own, which was nice to have that short respite from the balances and imbalances that having such a collection of talent together at once. As for Matt Vasquez, he was great when sharply rocking out on guitar for most of the night, but also did a more than admirable job taking lead on “Theater” and “Someday”. If anybody was underused or underrepresented not just during Middle Brother’s set but all night it was Vasquez, but that also makes a bit of sense given that his main band Delta Spirit is significantly less alt-country/folk than Deer Tick and Dawes are. He’s an essential part of Middle Brother, no doubt about that, he’s just more of the quiet one that sits in the corner quietly blowing everyone away rather than sucking up the spotlight (not that McCauley or Goldsmith are begging for attention, they’re probably just more outgoing). Of course everyone came together at the very end of the night, including Jonny Corndawg and the guys from Deer Tick and Dawes to perform the song “Middle Brother” and then an encore that included their cover of The Replacements’ “Portland” and a supremely round-robin version of The Band’s “Down South in New Orleans”. That’s how the night ended, with about 15 people on stage and random band members grabbing the microphone and belting out verses in the most theatrical and spectacular ways possible. For a brief moment it felt like one massive gospel and blues show, with new surprises emerging at every turn.

The ability to not just pull one, but multiple rabbits out of a single hat is a big part of what makes a good show great, and by that count every band nailed it Saturday night. I had a great admiration for all three bands that were on the bill Saturday night, and even the one (Delta Spirit) that wasn’t, but I couldn’t honestly say that I loved any one of them. As a result of this show, every one of them has sharply risen in my esteem. The spirit of collaboration and friendship completely overflowed on stage, really bringing out the best in each act and helping to create great memories for everyone that was in the room. There wasn’t anything earth shattering or epic that happened, but sometimes it’s the little things, the personal connections and a love of good music that make for the best times.

Middle Brother – Me Me Me
Middle Brother – Middle Brother

Buy “Middle Brother” from Amazon

Click past the jump for more photos!

Album Review: Middle Brother – Middle Brother [Partisan]

Here are the fine details that you’re going to read in most every discussion of the band Middle Brother. The trio of guys in this band are the respective frontmen for three separate and more popular bands; John McCauley is from Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith is from Dawes and Matthew Vasquez is from The Delta Spirit. They first got together in late 2009 after Deer Tick and Dawes toured together and had a lot of fun doing so. McCauley and Goldsmith would later get together in Nashville during some downtime with their respective bands and invited Vasquez to join them in the studio. What they really liked about the dynamic was that all of them pushed each other to become better musicians. Originally they called themselves MG&V, the simple combination of first letters from their last names, and played a secret, unannounced show under that moniker during SXSW last spring. It was also around that time period they began to record a debut album, which is what is now showing up in stores this week as the self-titled “Middle Brother”. Given that it’s been about a year and a name change since this “supergroup” first clued everyone in to their existence, what’s been the hold up? Scheduling problems apparently. The guys wanted to have proper time to go out and tour to promote the record but were all busy with their main bands and couldn’t quite commit to it last year. This year though is a different story, and the record is arriving right at the cusp of a cross-country tour that, naturally, takes them right back to SXSW where they first debuted in 2010.

If you’re familiar with all three of the “main bands” Middle Brother pulls its members from, then you’ll know almost exactly what to expect from this trio. The group dynamic is pretty even-handed, in that McCauley, Goldsmith and Vasquez all take turns playing various instruments and handling lead vocals. And even when one guy is on lead vocals, it’s reasonable to expect that the other two aren’t far behind with some strong backing harmonies. The sound is very Americana and rootsy, a healthy alt-country twang amidst a couple of more pop-driven songs. On paper it’s easy to see why Middle Brother should work given the talents behind it, but what truly impresses is just how well it really does. For their very first album after not a long time working together, the album sounds like they’ve been doing it for years, not weeks. Part of that surely comes from being musicians and having their own separate full time bands, but whenever you’re working with new people there are always some hurdles to go over in trying to play to everyone’s best strengths. This is extremely strong from the get-go though, and that lack of a learning curve only immerses you in the listening experience that much more.

“Daydreaming” starts the album with some quiet and folksy acoustic guitar that’s nothing short of lovely, save for the lyrics that begin on the lines, “Early in the mornin’, too hungover to go back to sleep/every sound is amplified, heavy lights so dizzying”. The song is one of many on the record that mentions being hungover, but really once you get past that first half of the verse it becomes about pining after the woman you love, about wishing she could be right next to you in the times she’s not there. The well-placed harmonies only add to the track’s inherent beauty, and one gets the impression that if you listened to this song while staring out the window on a sunny spring day that there wouldn’t be a better soundtrack. Neil Young and Band of Horses meet on “Blue Eyes”, a mid-tempo alt-country song with a touch of player piano and lyrics about what some might consider to be the ideal woman. Sadness permeates “Thanks for Nothing”, an acoustic ballad directed at a heartbreaker, a woman that left a poor guy in ruins. “Now the only girls I meet all look for hearts that they can fix/but mine is more like a kid that has gone missing,” Goldsmith sings in a very defeated way. For every person that has had a partner you were in love with just crush that in the cruelest way possible, there is meaning to be pulled from this song. Things get genuinely fun on the song “Middle Brother” (on the album “Middle Brother” from the band Middle Brother…just to fully clarify), a strong country guitar groove that brings everything from handclaps to tambourines and piano. It’s a rollicking track that’s about being the “forgotten” middle child in a family and doing things like learning to fly an airplane to “make my mama proud” and “get my dad to notice me, even if I have to fly it into the ground”.

The centerpiece of the album is a cover of The Replacements’ “Portland”, which is nice in part because there aren’t nearly enough good Replacements covers out there (seriously). Middle Brother does a fairly standard rendition of the song, but the acoustic guitars shine just a little bit brighter in the mix to give it a very 2011 feel rather than the slightly muddier 1997 original. First single “Me Me Me” is a fast-paced and super fun, combining some serious piano pounding, furiously strummed acoustic guitars, and a raw vocal performance from McCauley. The harmonies are ripe and so is the hook, to the point where this is probably one of the best songs of 2011 thus far. If you want to be sold on this band, “Me Me Me” is where you’ll cash that check. Things take an interesting turn on “Someday”, which with its 60s girl group backing “oohs” and “aahs” and Vasquez’s throaty vocals sounds a lot like a throwback pop number rather than the Americana material that’s come before it. The song is great and worthy of being a future single, but it feels out of character compared to the rest of the record. Then again, if Middle Brother is about allowing the personal styles of all three band members to properly mesh in one singular album, that is a touch of Delta Spirit and makes sense from that viewpoint. Goldsmith delivers his most powerful and intense performance on the six minute “Blood and Guts”, slowly stirring himself into a rage as his relationship quickly disintegrates around him. “I just wanna get my fist through some glass/I just wanna get your arm in a cast/I just want you to know that I care,” he says just before his voice soars out of him with a force that truly does feel gutteral and blood curdling. There’s genuine emotion pouring out of this song and sad though it may be, without a doubt people will strongly identify with it. After the portrait of hard life touring that is “Mom and Dad”, “Million Dollar Bill” closes out the record in acoustic ballad style, with all three guys taking the lead on separate verses and holding up backing harmonies. It’s just a little bit lackluster of a way to end things, but beautiful nevertheless.

When talking about Middle Brother, there are a few bands you can look to for comparison. The Band, The Traveling Wilburys, Crosby Stills and Nash (sometimes Young), and their more modern-day counterparts Monsters of Folk are all apt names to be throwing around here. Funny also that each one of those is a supergroup of sorts with that Americana-type sound. So what Middle Brother is doing on their self-titled debut can’t particularly be called unique. What makes a project like this special are the talents involved and whether or not they’re put to full use. In this case, where not only is there relative equality between band members but also each has their own moment in the spotlight, things seem to have turned out exceptionally well. These guys really do push one another to be better in one aspect or another. There are many moments of brilliant lyrical content and/or vocals that reach exactly the right pitch to perfectly convey the points that are trying to be made. For a record about the overused subjects of women, drinking and life on the road, McCauley, Goldsmith and Vasquez prove there’s more that can still be said in a relatively original way. Is Middle Brother a better project than the three bands each of their respective members came from? Yes in some aspects, and no in others. It’s a highly worthwhile side project, really. Like all those other aforementioned “supergroups”, you can’t deny there’s magic when these three get together, but chances are they wouldn’t exist without their regular day jobs. So after some touring, McCauley will return to Deer Tick and Goldsmith to Dawes and Vasquez to Delta Spirit and such, and they’ll all put out potentially great new records that way. Then somewhere be it a year or five from now, they’ll get back to this collaborative project and hopefully the same chutzpah of this first record will continue on the second. In the meantime, be sure to see Middle Brother as they tour this spring. McCauley and Goldsmith are pulling double duty as Deer Tick and Dawes are playing full sets on the tour as well. Have a look at the dates below, and pick up the album – it’s a folk-driven delight.

Middle Brother – Me Me Me
Middle Brother – Middle Brother

Buy “Middle Brother” from Amazon

Tour Dates
March 2 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club *
March 3 – Boston, MA – Paradise Rock Club *
March 4 – Providence, RI – Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel *
March 5 – Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall of Williamsburg *
March 6 – New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom *
March 9 – Philadelphia, PA – Theatre of Living Arts *
March 10 – Rochester, NY – Water Street Music Hall *
March 11 – Toronto, ON – Opera House (with Deer Tick only)
March 12 – Chicago, IL – Metro *
March 13 – Madison, WI – Majestic Theatre *
March 14 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue *
March 15 – Lawrence, KS – The Granada Theater *
March 17 – Dallas, TX – Club Dada *
March 18 – Austin, TX – Brooklyn Vegan, Partisan Records, and KF Records Present: A Free SXSW Day Party at Swan Dive / Barbarella (SXSW)
March 19 – Austin, TX – Auditorium Shores/Ground Control Touring Showcase (SXSW)
April 3 – San Francisco, CA – The Independent ^
April 4 – Santa Cruz, CA – Moe’s Alley ^
April 5 – Santa Barbara, CA – Soho %
April 6 – Costa Mesa, CA – Detroit Bar %
April 7 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo %
April 8 – San Diego, CA – The Loft %

* = with Deer Tick and Dawes
^ = with Blake Mills
% = with Jonny Corndawg

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