I think I'm going to like this town: It took me exactly six minutes to get from my hotel to Daniel Street. My name was on the list. The doorman checked my coat. The club is warm and cozy with enough chairs and benches for those that want them, and enough room to accommodate a good standing crowd, but not so big as to be intimidating. The stage is manageable – set in the back corner of the club in view of all. The stage lights are bright and colourful. The sound is fantastic. Yes, I think I'm going to like this town.
At 8:30 the six late-twenty-somethings of Hartford's Heirlooms climbed onto the stage. Five guys, one gal. Most looking pretty worn with unkempt beards, plenty of flannel, half in boots and the other half in Converse All-Stars. Not hipsters or even dive-bar denizens, but obviously musicians – a rock band, restrained, but a rock band nonetheless. A multitude of influences can be heard in the band's sound; but, of course, rock is a mutt. The soulful vocals of frontman Jesse Stanford fit perfectly alongside the blues licks (not quite solos, but good long licks) of guitarist Thomas Servidone. And the rootsy, Americana colourings (not the least of which were provided by violinist Ciara Cohen) don't clash with the rambunctious, mid-neck bass lines played by Brendan Cox. The band only played five songs – five long songs in a half hour set built upon slow tempos that verged on plodding at times. But compositions were never laboured or tired, just pensive, or occasionally, flirting with melancholy. For the final number, Cohen set down her violin, and stepped up her backing vocals, blending delightfully with both Stanford and Kearney. There aren't many hooks in Heirlooms' music, but there are many subtle touches that can thrill the dedicated listener.
The stage was turned around quickly for the Queens duo of The Shivers. This band is the project of peacocking frontman Keith Zarriello. In his suit and worn shoes, with hair pushed back, Zarriello looks like a preacher. While his lyrics aren't Godly, they do tell the story of sin and consequence. Like Nick Cave, Zarriello knows when he's being bad, and he likes it. This wanton naughtiness amuses Zarriello's recently acquired keyboard cohort Jo Schornikow. She smiles brightly, and Zarriello performs for her approval. A bizarre altered-state ramble after the surprisingly blue song "Lonely Pony" delighted Zarriello and the audience, but mostly it tickled Zarriello who was laughing so heartily that he could barely spill the next line in his improvised story. While Schornikow was undeniably awestruck by her bandmate, she also had to be alert for his freewheeling changes. Will there be four or fourteen forceful strums to end the song, I'm sure not even Zarriello new until it happened.
Of course, the duo also created music. The Shivers is built on the lyrics and vocals of Zarriello. He has a nice clean tenor when he sings, and a lovely high tenor when he pushes it, but generally he opts for a deeper husky voice similar to later-period Lou Reed (whom, along with Leonard Cohen, I would peg as obvious influences). His guitar lines are typically simple and soft, though he can rev up to clanging chords. There are no freakouts though, and his Fender guitar is bright and free of distortion. Schornikow is left to find organ lines around the guitar, gently supporting song structures. On piano however, she often bangs out lines as if she were playing honky-tonk at a bar in the outback. Her quiet backing vocals followed the same pattern, striding firmly alongside of Zarriello's in one of the band's final numbers. I would have liked to have heard more of her vocals, but the band played a long-enough set of fifty minutes, and it was time to hand the stage over to its touring partners.
The night's headliners were billed as "John McCauley and Ian O'Neil (of Deer Tick)" though for all real purposes, anytime John McCauley takes the stage, the Deer Tick moniker applies. Initially the band was only McCauley, and while the band's ranks have swelled and ebbed since then, it's only McCauley who has remained constant. In fact, O'Neil is only a 2009 addition to Deer Tick (coming from Titus Andronicus), although the two seem to be musical soulmates.
The evening was informally split three ways: a third of the songs were performed by McCauley solo, a third by O'Neil solo, and another third performed by the duo. This allowed the audience an intimate view of each player that couldn't possibly happen at a Deer Tick show. The material performed was a mix of old Deer Tick songs (or as the amusingly ribald McCauley put it, "we're going balls deep into the Deer Tick catalogue"), newly written songs (including a heartbreaking O'Neil composition written only days before that I believe he called "Winter Rains"), covers (the audience cooed for McCauley's cover of Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend" and sang along with The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait"), and tracks from side projects. Songs from this final category were some of my favourites. McCauley played one song entitled "Cake and Eggs" which he introduced as a song from an imaginary band he created with Nikki Darlin of the band Those Darlins. He confessed the song was "kinda about oral sex." Another song from his Middle Brother's project was introduced as a "funny song about a delusional alcoholic – much like all of you out there." As hard as it is to imagine a quality funny song sung from the perspective of a delusional alcoholic, this one fit the bill. Near the end of the set, McCauley brought up one of his mentors, Viking Moses (Brendon Massei) to perform a Viking Moses song. Massei was brash, twitchy, and antsy (like John Darnielle early in the Mountain Goats days), with McCauley working calmly aside him to provide guitar leads and vocal harmonies. While maybe not in this composition, several of the covers played gave McCauley a chance to show off smoking bluesy guitar leads. These don't typically come into play with the rolling finger-picked arpeggios that both guitarists heavily favour.
The guitar stylings of each player are not the only shared similarities. Both sing with clenched jaws, forcing sound through strained vocal chords in tightened necks; O'Neil's voice is noticeably raspier, McCauley's fuller. Both performers wore jeans and flannel shirts, cementing the scruffy "return to grunge" fashion trend we all saw coming but hoped could be avoided. O'Neil appeared to take the informal nature of the show quite seriously, opening the night by remarking that this was his first time he had ever worn slippers on stage. And indeed he was, lamb's wool and all.
After exhausting the prepared setlist the band thanked the audience and began packing up its equipment. Prompted by calls for an encore, the band returned to the stage responding with an intimate version of "Dirty Dishes" from the its first album. Immediately afterwards the lights came up, and music came over the PA. Curfew must have been hit.
I looked at my phone as I walked out of the club into the thick falling snow. 12:10. The band had played for an hour and a half. It was late, and I had to work early the next morning, but luckily I only had a six minute drive back to the hotel. Yeah, I'm definitely going to like this town.