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.
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.
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.
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