"It’s like the real deal," Deer Tick frontman John McCauley told the sold-out crowd Friday night at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl, "but with more guitars and an organ." He was right. The Providence, Rhode Island band were covering Nirvana’s third and final album, In Utero, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and the quintet sounded exactly like the late Seattle alt-rock kings.
After all, they’ve had practice. Deer Tick have been known to moonlight often as Deervana, performing entire sets of Nirvana songs. But Friday’s gig was their first as Deervana in two years, a special birthday tribute, as McCauley later told the audience, to "one of our all-time favorite albums."
Dressed in a flannel shirt, Converse shoes and tattered blue jeans with holes in the knees, McCauley was a consummate Kurt Cobain, leading the band through Nirvana’s 12-song swan song with the same ferocity and reckless abandon as the late rock icon. He bounced and thrashed his weathered red Fender Mustang guitar, just like Cobain’s, and his gritty voice broke in all the right places as he screamed over the drop D crunch of songs like "Scentless Apprentice" and "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter." "He's a completely different person up there," a fan said of McCauley, who exudes a beer-guzzling, alt-country persona with Deer Tick. Courtney Love and the casting crew for the inevitable biopic should take note.
"This song is one of my favorites," McCauley said to introduce "Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," which the quintet played with even more muscle and heft than Nirvana – a trio and later a touring quartet with second guitarist Pat Smear in ’93 and ’94 – ever had. It was loud. It was gritty. It was In Utero.
Drummer Dennis Ryan sang lead on the all-out grunge-punk assault "Tourette’s," his eyes popping out and face turning bright pink as he simultaneously shrieked and played his kit at reckless speed. Mirroring the album, a friend joined on cello for "Dumb," adding deep mournful tones to the distorted guitars. For "Milk It," McCauley invited up the show’s opener, Torres, a.k.a. Nashville alt-country singer-songwriter Mackenzie Scott. She stomped onstage like a young female version of Mark Lanegan, a longtime friend of Nirvana, dressed in all black – black boots, jeans, dyed hair and a button-down Western shirt with red rose embroidery. Like Cobain, she mumbled the verse lyrics over meandering guitar rings, then exploded over its roaring chorus of down-tuned bar-chords and earthquake drums. During the closing breakdown, bassist Christopher Dale Ryan dropped his instrument and dove into the enraptured crowd, which caught and sent him for a lap above the floor.
The crowd was flipping out, moshing throughout the succinct, hour-long set from the first fuzz-toned guitar slash of "Serve the Servants." They sang along to every word and jumped onstage, shouting a verse into McCauley’s microphone then diving back into the human froth. It became so rampant that a bouncer was dispatched to the front of the stage to prevent fans from accidentally breaking gear or disconnecting wires. "When was the last time you seriously moshed or crowd surfed?" one fan asked another. His friend looked puzzled, searching for an answer, then simply shrugged.
"Hope you guys had fun tonight," McCauley said onstage, explaining how enjoyable it is for Deer Tick to don their Deervana alter egos to perform the grunge classic, which deeply influenced their own sound.
Deervana closed, naturally, with "All Apologies." Realizing this was the end of the gig – a special opportunity to hear one of their favorite classic albums covered note for note by one of their favorite young bands – the fans poured their remaining energy into moshing to that immediately recognizable guitar riff and singing along to the refrain: "All in all is all we are ." The band exited the stage, then returned dressed in robes and pajamas and celebrated with a pillow fight, laughing as the cases exploded and feathers floated into the air like lingering confetti. And that's as close to the "real deal" as it gets.