Deer Tick

The Rhode Island alt-country rockers deliver a fine set at the Out to Lunch Festival

The Black Box in Belfast is busy this Friday night as festival punters brave the dreary January weather to see Rhode Island alt-country rockers Deer Tick bring a little heat to the weekend.

Front-man John McCauley has had a little time to get used to the Irish weather as he has been honeymooning in Dublin with wife, singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton for the past week before kicking off the bands European tour in Whelan’s last night.

After a support set by London power pop trio Great Cynics, Deer Tick take to the stage and ease into their set with ‘Rocks,’ the opening number from their most recent album Negativity.

Singing and playing an organ that is set so low on the stage one has to strain to see the top of McCauley’s head from the back of the room, the song is a slow burner that only comes to life when the remainder of the quintet kick in with power riffs, pounding drums and swirling organ fills.

‘The Dreams in the Ditch,’ sung by guitarist Ian O’Neil, raises the room temperature a little with its Byrdsian swagger and sax solo from keyboard player Rob Crowell before McCauley lets the momentum slide with ‘Just Friends,’ which sounds for all the world like the theme tune to an 80’s American sitcom.

Back behind the organ, McCauley introduces the number by telling the audience: 'This is a song that some of our fans despise. Feel free to go to the bar or stay here and boo.' Thankfully, some in the crowd take him up on his first offer but not the second.

It’s only when the band play a blistering cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Oh Boy!’ which segues into their boozy Ramones style anthem ‘Let’s All Go to the Bar’ that the gig – and the crowd – finally comes to life.

After requesting some whiskey (McCauley complains that a bottle wasn’t provided on their rider), the singer welcomes his new bride to the stage for ‘In Our Time,’ a George Jones and Tammy Wynette style country duet mixed with T-Rex boogie.

The temperature is raised further with powerful performances of ‘The Curtain’ and ‘Thyme’, then McCauley introduces ‘Dirty Dishes,’ from 2007’s War Elephant album. 'We’re going to quiet things down for this one, but by no means shut up,' he tells the crowd, some of whom take him at his word and chatter throughout the song’s delicate, beautiful five-part harmonies.

So far it’s been a schizophrenic show from Deer Tick. They work hard to get the crowd onside, then seem to lose them with the quieter songs in the set. It doesn’t seem to bother the band, though, who carry on playing what they want in whatever order seems fit (as evidenced by McCauley making his set list prompt sheet into a paper aeroplane and sailing it into the crowd).

The Lemonheads style country pop of ‘Miss K’ is followed by the swaggering boogie of ’12 Bar Blues,’ which sets some of the older members of the audience to jiving and highlights the musicianship Deer Tick as solo follows solo.

The band take a break as McCauley performs a stark, gravel voiced ‘Christ Jesus’ solo, before introducing "an old American folk song" ‘Cocaine Blues.’

The band reconvene onstage for ‘Ashamed,’ before drummer Dennis Ryan hits the Ronettes ‘Be My Baby’ backbeat which introduces ‘Main Street.’ Events are brought to a high energy finale with ‘Mange,’ McCauley introducing the band one by one before a final, climactic guitar wig-out which soars into ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ territory.

Tonight’s festival crowd have been treated to a fine set which touched on country, folk, blues rock and 12-bar boogie. It’s arguable that the songs haven’t necessarily been played in the right order but that’s Deer Tick’s prerogative. Their attitude seems to be ‘if you don’t like this one there’s another one in a minute you will do.’ Who are we to disagree?

The Out to Lunch Festival continues until January 26, for full event listings visit the Queen's Cathedral Arts Festival website.