A Long Weekend Of Urban Americana
Deer Tick | Image by City Paper Digi-Cam
Flanneled weird-beards of Baltimore: Fear not! Americana, with the occasional tinge of indie rock, is alive and well in this town. This past weekend we checked out a total of five acts, at three different venues, all but one of which fell under the general banner of “rootsy” and, curiously, they were some of the best shows we’ve caught in a while.
Friday night Deer Tick, a Brooklyn-via-Rhode Island country-rock band, opened a bill at the G Spot, for the second time. The first show was with Wye Oak headlining, a little over a year ago; Friday it was moody troubadour Matthew Houck, also known as Phosphorescent. Both times, Deer Tick narrowly out shined the headliner. Led by guitarist and singer John Joseph McCauley III, the band sometimes hits high emotional points that you don’t expect out of them. “Little White Lies” and “Art Isn’t Real a.k.a. City of Sin” trickle along with finger-picked guitar parts and chiming lead lines, but McCauley’s voice is brash and mature, and especially suited to lines like “I gotta get drunk, I gotta forget about some things/ I lived in lies all my life/ And I’ve been livin’ here all my life.” The band also played local favorite “Baltimore Blues No. 1.”
Houck, we were told by a neighbor, was pissed about the sound system, but it was difficult to tell because this is the first time we’ve seen him. His brand of psych-drenched country-folk seemed cool enough, though, and his voice is outstanding. And the keyboard player in his touring band did things rarely heard of in relatively straight-laced country music—rolls and riffs straight out of the blues idiom, making a kind of ornate joinery with Houck’s singing. But the songwriting falls a bit short. The best Phosphorescent song played, “Reasons To Quit,” sounds like a tired reworking of the Louvin Brothers’ “Satan Is Real,” both in melody and lyrical tone. An encore version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” was good, but not great.
Saturday, J. Roddy Walston and the Business, the ubiquitous Jerry Lee Lewis-meets-Queen bar rock band, returned to the Ottobar after something of a Saturday night residency there a few months ago. Beefed up by openers Egg Babies Orchestra, the rumor was that the bar had its biggest bar tab ever. The Egg Babies are a spectacle worth spectating. Each show they play is different, both in song selection and theme, and Saturday was “Movie Show II” a sequel to an earlier performance in which the band played ’80s movie themes while projecting scenes from the movie behind them. “Neverending Story” was incredible. “Stuck In The Middle With You” over the cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs was fun, and “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “The Glory of Love” over scenes from the Karate Kid Part 2 were transcendent.
J. Roddy’s set was pretty much all old songs. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is probably the best live rock band in Baltimore. The energy is unbelievably high, every song is anthemic, and J. Roddy lurches around, rocks back and forth, and literally dry-humps his keyboard when things get really wild. Not to mention bassist Zach Westphal’s glorious head banging with his elbow-length hair, which honestly is one of the best parts of the show. We were standing behind a hardy crew of frat types, clearly loving the cock rock, who kept hugging each other and nearly kissed during “I’m Going Out,” Roddy’s Thin Lizzy-ish chant about “going out with my friends.” Highlights included an encore version of the delightfully filthy “Full-Grown Man” and and artfully delivered “Nineteen Ought Four,” a slow blues-rock ballad that compares a love affair to the Great Baltimore Fire.
And Monday night, after missing two opening acts by the pitifully early hour of 10:30, we returned to the Ottobar for six or so cuts from Maryland-based alt-country outfit Cotton Jones. This show was disappointing. Michael Nau seems like he has a really talented singer/songwriter/performer package in him somewhere that is so obscured by the mediocrity of his band it’s almost painful. In fact, listening to the gal who sang, played keyboards, and shook a sleigh bell and could not bring herself to sing on key or in any harmony more interesting than a fifth off of what Jones was singing, was quite literally grating. Add to that the two totally unnecessary electric guitars on stage, and body language from the band that could be mistaken for nothing other than, “I’d rather be anywhere but here right now,” and what you’ve got is a band that sounds like an imitation M. Ward that’s earning only a tiny fraction of what they could be making if they were a trio. Sad to see and say, but tough love seems to be what Cotton Jones needs in order to cut some of the fat out of its live act.