Wednesday night’s show at the 9:30 Club was the start of a high-profile tour for Middle Brother. It’s a side-project for its members, all of whom have highly respected bands on the cusp of greatness of their own to tend to. For less-talented musicians, gambling time away from their primary projects might kill the hard-won momentum they’d built up. For the members of Middle Brother—Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, Deer Tick’s John McCaulay and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez, all of them darlings of the indie music culture—the side project turned out to be a shot of adrenaline for a bunch of guys already riding pretty high on their own. Wednesday’s show took some seriously high-energy bands, tumbled their members together in a free-for-all of booze, musicianship and friendship, and spit out a rocket fuel concoction that propelled its members even higher. It ranked among the best I’ve seen on the 9:30 Club stage. So, first things first: Thank you, guys. That was a hell of a night.
On this leg of the tour, Middle Brother’s opening acts are a natural fit: seeing as how half their members are the headliners, it made perfect sense to bring Dawes and Deer Tick out as the openers. And seeing as how the people at a Middle Brother show are logically fans of its members’ other projects, it was an especially great touch to allow both openers to play a full set of songs before getting to the main act. It required a huge commitment from the fans, and an even bigger one from the performers who would be asked to run an endurance test throughout the night.
In a normal show, Band A would go play, then chill out while Band B and Band C perform. With Middle Brother, the members of all three bands wandered freely into each others’ sets throughout the night, so we got Deer Tick’s John McCaulay playing the harmonica during the end of Dawes’ set, and Matt Vasquez playing guitar and singing on a few Deer Tick songs. Even the bands’ supporting members couldn’t catch a break–Dawes bassist Wylie Gelber came out to back up Middle Brother on a few songs. By the end of the night, even Deer Tick drummer Dennis Ryan was out on stage singing lead vocals while the rest of the gang was too busy hitting drums and shaking things and playing off each other on guitar to be bothered to sing. Actually, let’s clarify that: by the end of the night, EVERYONE was out on stage, even a random guy from the crowd who guzzled some Jack Daniels before diving from the stage into a pile of very confused, plaid-clad hipsters who weren’t packed nearly tight enough to catch him. (I think he was probably too drunk to have cared. Or noticed.)
And all night long, like a lost country cousin who just happened to get on the tour bus, performer Johnny Corndawg popped into the sets for a song or two. Corndawg, clad all in denim, is a performer who commands your attention. After Middle Brother winds its way to SXSW this month, Dawes and Deer Tick drop off the bill, and Corndawg will be filling the opening-act role all by himself for the West Coast dates. It will be a dramatic change to the show, and while I don’t doubt the West Coasters will be treated to a great show, I feel sorry for them that they’ll never get to see the particular mix we did on Wednesday night. Because wow.
All night long, the stage was full of personalities and old friends. Their chemistry—musically and personally—was palpable and incredible, reminiscent of those great evenings you sometimes get to spend just hanging out with some of your favorite friends. Like a lot of groups, there’s the impish screwup (hi there, John McCaulay), and there’s the down-to-business guy who keeps the show rolling (looking at you, Taylor Goldsmith). And, finally, there’s the anchor, Matt Vasquez, who bursts out on stage with an energy that forces everyone to like him and a willingness to pick up any instrument and just create something great. Watching him cover Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street” was like watching peanut butter discover jelly, and there was no turning back.
The party got out of hand a time or two. These guys have been playing together for ages, running the same circuit for years, opening for each other, but this was their first night out as a full-fledged show. The night suffered from the sort of timing issues that arise when everyone’s so busy being friends that they forget to attend to the show for a little while. I don’t agree with the decision to alternate Dawes’ and Deer Tick’s spots on the bill: Dawes sets build to a climax that would have served as a magnificent lead in to Middle Brother, but instead all their built-up energy was deflated a bit when Deer Tick came out and John McCaulay seemed more interested in hosting a kegger than performing a show. My friend Nicole mentioned a little after 10:00 that she thought Deer Tick might have been too drunk to know that their set was supposed to have ended 20 minutes earlier. McCaulay is a ham, and I got annoyed with him from time to time, and then he would start singing again and all would be forgiven. But seriously, that’s the worst I can say about that show, that someone on stage appeared to be having too much fun. And that’s hardly a complaint at all, especially when McCaulay rallied, played some Dead Kennedys for the hell of it, and stormed the stage an hour later to almost single-handedly provide the burst of energy Middle Brother needed to kick off the final leg of the night. Drink all you want, McCaulay, as long as you keep singing the way you do, especially on your cover of The Replacements’ “Portland.”
This was my last 9:30 Club show for a while. I’m picking up and moving to New York in a week, and I’ll be working a schedule that will seriously cut into my concert-going time. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to say goodbye to a venue that has become not only one of my favorite places in the District, but one of my favorite places, period. You hear a lot of artists and music fans talk about how great the 9:30 Club is—Middle Brother did it on stage on Wednesday night—and if I have any last words of advice to the music fans in this city, it’s this: Go. Go see a show. Go experience the bands live. Spend as much time as you possibly can in the 9:30 Club. There is no other experience on earth like seeing a really great sold-out show in that place, and I know how lucky I am to have seen so many of them over the last 6 years. So thanks, Middle Brother, for being on top of your game Wednesday night, and thanks, 9:30 Club, for just being there.