"I was sober." John McCauley is lying belly-up on top of a picnic table at Fort Adams National Park. The Deer Tick frontman, along with his rest of alt-country quartet, is visibly exhausted, and for good reason: in addition to the hour-long set they plowed through at the Newport Folk Festival earlier that afternoon, McCauley and crew are still recovering from the opening night of their weekend-long engagement at the Newport Blues Café that serves as the festival’s official after-party.
Given Deer Tick’s propensity for cracking Coronas with their teeth onstage and the fact that one of their most popular songs screams, “LET’S ALL GO TO THE BAR!” every other line, to hear that McCauley was this wiped out from a folk fest show and not loaded for the first night of the Newport Blues run is a surprise, to say the least. This is the same guy I watched bash his Fender to smithereens until streams of sticky red ran down from his Koolaid-dyed scalp, back when Deer Tick performed a Nirvana cover set at South By Southwest a year and change ago. This is the man I’ve seen drop to his knees and swill out of a bottle without relieving the guitar from his clutches. This is the guy whose very breathing implies that his blood type is a potent mix of Four Roses and rock ’n’ roll, and yet the first thing he tells me about the show he played the night before is that he was sober for it, and that that was fuckin’ weird.
But, hey. There’s a first time for everything, and the fact that McCauley was uncharacteristically dry didn’t hold him, the rest of Deer Tick, or the superlative lineup at large back from turning the Newport Blues Café into the most impossible club to get into in New England last weekend.
Though officially hosted by the Newport Festival Foundation and their label, Partisan Records, Deer Tick serves as both the emcee and main attraction of these after-parties, sitting in whenever they’re invited and leaping onstage to pound a keyboard over somebody’s shoulder when they’re not. This in turn transforms the Newport Blues Café into a fertile breeding ground for collaboration, one without the limits begrudgingly imposed by the Newport Folk Festival, with its all-ages audience and national media attention. In 2011, the after-party wasn’t officially sanctioned and members of the Newport Folk lineup—the Felice Brothers, Trampled By Turtles, Dawes, Delta Spirit—all convened at the bar to get shithoused with their friends and play a set should they feel so inclined. This year, after the Newport Blues shows sold out in minutes and Newport Folk followed suit shortly thereafter, the band, the label and the festival figured it’d be wise to capitalize on a good thing by actually booking a lineup—including one of the festival’s headliners, Jackson Browne—and announcing it, catching lightning in a bottle and bringing an air of formality to an otherwise unruly endeavor.
Deer Tick is cool with this formal approach, though: they may kick a hole through an amp or knock over a drum kit from time to time, but when it comes down to it, they’ve got a show to put on and they want to do it well. “We have a pretty tight schedule,” says Ian O’Neill, Deer Tick’s lead guitarist, when I catch up with the band before their show Saturday night. “These shows can be a little looser than our festival sets, which we always keep pretty structured—they’re different beasts. As far as backstage stuff is concerned, people could just wander back there. We confirmed people beforehand this year, whereas last year we didn’t really know who was gonna show up.”
The after-parties also provide an opportunity for Newport Folk artists to go from a day job demeanor to the perks and pitfalls of an after-hours scenario, which works in their favor while bringing them back down to reality. Jackson Browne, whose presence at Newport Folk kept festival-goers captivated despite the downpour that lasted for the majority of his time onstage, had no problem belting out a few covers (namely Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita,” where he was joined by Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith on vocals) and good-naturedly sang over the slurred rumbles elevating from the crowd. Sharon Van Etten sounded just as effortlessly, hauntingly gorgeous as she did during her Newport Folk performance earlier that day, the only difference being that she had changed into jeans and had no problems calling out the hammered asshole who kept flailing around and making a scene at her feet. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Jim James of My Morning Jacket were among the patrons present for Saturday night’s show, though they opted to remain incognito and take in the show as opposed to sitting in for it.
And Deer Tick, who stuck to their catalog and kept their language clean for the crowd they played for at the Fort, enjoyed their goofy cover of Badfinger’s “Without You” in the vein of Mariah Carey as much as the girls hanging over the bar waiting for an aluminum bottle of Bud Light did. If Newport Folk was the main event that introduced these musicians as meteoric talents, some whose lyrics and notes resonate with those of Woody Guthrie, Dylan and the rest of the festival’s storied legacy, Deer Tick’s after-party did a service by showing fans that folk music’s an amorphous genre that includes all kinds of fuck-ups, weirdos and nerds who take a the punchline of a joke as seriously as they do the crux of a brilliant ballad.
“Jay Sweet [producer of the Newport Folk Festival] said that our set and the after-parties are what Newport used to be about, and what Newport needs to be again,” says O’Neill. “There’s louder bands, and bands that play quiet and loud music. If anything, it’s drifting more towards us than what it used to be, you know?”
Deer Tick may corral the bros with bar anthems better than anyone else, and their music may be met with a kind of consternation that’s not unlike what Bob Dylan faced when he plugged in at Newport Folk himself years ago. The fact that one of the oldest music festivals in the country wants to be as much a part of their raucous dive bar adventures shows that they’re a unique force that can give old school rock and roll and up-and-coming indie talents the same platform to perform on, even if the place is covered in a boozy film from the get-go, and even if John McCauley hasn’t had a single drop to drink.
Photography by Mike Basu