Even before the group, led by John McCauley, hit the stage around 10:30 p.m., the crowd was drunk, sweaty and excitable. It was no secret that this would be Deer Tick's night, a headlining opportunity on the eve of a shorter slot at Red Rocks on Saturday opening for Trampledby Turtles.
A swarm of music lovers, most of them with cans of Pabst in hand, packed in front of the Bluebird stage -- between the more dignified, elevated section's railing and the band -- jockeying for position. One tall, visibly excited concert-goer assured those around him, "You're stressing more than you have to; things are gonna move and it'll be fine."
Deer Tick, which focused on crowd-pleasers that included heavy doses of the 2007 breakthrough War Elephant, the first of the Providence outfit's five LPs, clearly loved the energy in the room.
"We had to cancel a show here back in October" -- for medical reasons -- "but we'll make it up to you tonight," McCauley promised. "We're gonna do stuff from all our eras. Believe it or not, we've been around long enough to have eras."
The tunes from War Elephant were the most effective, but rollicking classics like "Easy" also highlighted McCauley's talent for somehow making negativity pleasurable. McCauley is finally approaching thirty (and married Vanessa Carlton last year) but appears to be having more fun on stage than ever.
Early in Deer Tick's two-hour set at the Bluebird, McCauley played guitar from his knees, drifting backward a la Hendrix. Later he played a dueling solo with guitarist Ian O'Neil (who looks and plays just like Mike Bloomfield circa Dylan going electric) while engaging in a sustained headbutt not unlike young rams lovingly sparring. And just before a phenomenal nine-song encore -- well, not really an encore, because McCauley remained on stage while the rest of the band took a breather -- the energetic blond frontman played guitar atop Dennis Ryan's bass drum before leaping off, Pete Townshend-style.
During the faux-metal guitar solo in "These Old Shoes," McCauley even made a series of faces that suggested he's seen the recent memes that features everything from slugs to sandwiches Photoshopped in place of guitars while legendary shredders make pained faces.
And those cans of Pabst, raised high over and over, had more of a tendency to shake and spill when McCauley's giddy showmanship periodically appeared. Jubilant quasi-moshing erupted two-thirds of the way through Deer Tick's set, to the obvious delight of McCauley, who popped a bottle of champagne on stage and was having such a good time he found time to fit in covers of oldies like "Sleepwalkers" and "La Bamba," plus teases of "Every Breath You Take" and the theme from The Munsters.
"He looks like Woogie from There's Something About Mary," my date hilariously leaned in to tell me at one point. "And the guitarist looks like a cross between Mike Myers and Jimmy Fallon."
It's true: Deer Tick is not a handsome band. But women -- who made up nearly half the raucous capacity audience -- sang along with virtually every word McCauley and his band mates (two of whom did some lead singing themselves) let out, and smiled as big as the musicians, who have clearly bonded something fierce over the past eight or so years of constant touring.
As "The Bump," which had the Denver crowd screaming along, explains: "We're full grown men / but we act like kids." The five members of Deer Tick also act like best friends. And that spirit is contagious: A guy dancing next to us with his girlfriend all night returned from the bar at one point with cans of Pabst for me and my date.
Perhaps the peak of the evening was McCauley's character-filled two-song solo turn, which turned into a sing-along with the singer/songwriter's signature Willie Nelson-meets-Pavement tune, "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)" and "Something in the Way" by Nirvana, which McCauley famously fronted as Kurt Cobain's "replacement" in for an April gig in Brooklyn after the grunge legend's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction.
The show was brought to a fever pitch when the rest of Deer Tick emerged to join McCauley for the culmination of the Tom Waits-esque ballad "Not So Dense," slamming into the song's screaming "hour after hour" crescendo along with the frenzied crowd.
It's a difficult feat to pull off, but Deer Tick had me feeling glad be jammed into a 100-year-old, 500-capacity theater on a steamy summer night rather than under the stars at Red Rocks.