JJ Sheffer for Tri State Indie – March 13, 2011
Photos by David Simchock / David Simchock Photography

The proverbial middle child: ignored and neglected as the other siblings get all the love and attention. The band Middle Brother may have seemed that way in theory as its members’ priorities were their respective bands, but in the midst of their first tour, there is no lack of interest or respect from fans. And certainly no lack of enthusiasm from its members.

Middle Brother (originally known as MG&V when they played together at the 2010 SXSW) is an indie-rock all-star supergroup, comprised of three frontmen who each bring to the table stellar songwriting chops and distinct vocal and guitar styles. It’s clear that Matthew Vasquez (Delta Spirit), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), and John McCauley (Deer Tick) are having a blast onstage together, touring in support of their recent self-titled album.

At their show at the Theatre of Living Arts (TLA) in Philadelphia on March 9, the buzz in the crowd before the show was palpable. Glancing around the room, you could catch sight of other indie-rock all-stars, such as Ben Kweller or Dr. Dog drummer Eric Slick, among the fans. The format for the shows included full sets from Deer Tick and Dawes (they’re taking turns with the order throughout the tour), and then a full set from Middle Brother. Members of each band, as well as guests like tourmate Jonny Corndawg, come and go throughout the evening, sitting in on each other’s songs or playing covers together.

Deer Tick played first at the TLA, with John McCauley and guitarist Ian O’Neill (former Titus Andronicus guitarist) trading off on lead vocals. Their sound is both gritty and smooth, with southern rock undertones and a punk rock soul. About six songs into the set, they were joined onstage by Matt Vasquez, Kweller, and Slick, who played three songs, including a cover of Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me.” The guitarists took turns playing solos, and Deer Tick drummer Dennis Ryan even came downstage and grabbed a mic to lend his Joe Cocker vibe to the Sam Cooke song.

Between songs – and the appreciative crowd response – Matt Vasquez summed it up perfectly: “This whole tour has been like this. It’s like a pool party. It’s so fun.”

The crowd on the stage thinned back out a bit and Deer Tick rounded their set out with four more songs. An uncharacteristically subdued McCauley wore a mischievous grin, but didn’t open any beer bottles with his teeth and only made a few references to eating mushrooms. True, he did beat his guitar to hell near the end of the set, breaking nearly every string, but O’Neill broke a few by the end, too. McCauley’s relative sobriety didn’t make the show any less entertaining.

Dawes’ set showcased the musical virtuosity and soul for which they’ve come to be known. It bears mentioning that Dawes, who are big fans of and whose music has been influenced by The Band, will play upcoming TV and festival gigs as the backing band for Robbie Robertson.

Seeing Dawes live feels like having an intimate conversation with Goldsmith. His lyrics, combined with beautiful four-part harmony, make you feel like you’re wrapping up in your favorite blanket – even the songs about getting screwed over by one girl or another. Jonny Corndawg joined them for “Fire Away,” a song that will be on Dawes’ forthcoming album, followed by five of Jonny’s songs. The crowd, full of Dawes fans diehard enough to be singing along to even the new songs that haven’t been released yet, were instant Corndawg fans. His particular schtick and engaging personality are impossible to resist.

Jonny, John McCauley, Matt Vasquez, and the entire audience helped out with the singalong favorite “When My Time Comes.” McCauley took a verse and then played harmonica while Jonny and Matt danced together.

The party continued, and eventually went off the rails in the best way possible, with the Middle Brother set. The three stars of the show took turns leading, beginning with Vasquez on “Blue Eyes,” followed by McCauley with “Mom and Dad” (bonus points for local reference when he changed the words from “Statue of Liberty” to “bell of liberty,” much to the crowd’s delight). After the song, McCauley exclaimed, “I love being on this tour!” and the crowd roared again. “Sorry about the Deer Tick set,” he said. “I was really mad at my guitar.”

Vasquez introduced the Goldsmith-penned song “Thanks for Nothing” as “99 Problems – the Middle Brother version,” explaining that it was about feeling like you’re damaged goods and that “you’re never gonna love anybody ever again.”

Most Middle Brother songs have a feel akin to Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a restlessness and sense of having nowhere to go but up. Even the up-tempo songs belie the deep melancholy of not getting what you set out to attain and not knowing where to go next. But somehow, the album just makes you feel so damn good anyway, and leaves you wanting more.

The set at the TLA ended with everyone onstage playing what’s come to be known as the group’s theme song, “Middle Brother.” When the crowd called for an encore, Matt Vasquez walked back out onto the stage alone and played the Delta Spirit song “People Turn Around.” It became clear in that special moment that Vasquez is the big brother in this scenario. People in the crowd slung their arms around each others’ shoulders, swayed back and forth, and sang along at the top of their voices. As Vasquez led us into the first chorus, Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith came out of the wings, beers in hand, to stand at a mic and sing harmony in what appeared to be an impromptu move.

When the song ended, the rest of the crew came back out and played “Portland,” a Replacements’ cover that’s on the Middle Brother album. Ian O’Neill took over the mic to sing lead on a cover of The Band’s “Down South in New Orleans.” In another spontaneous, keep-the-party-going moment, O’Neill ended up on Vasquez’s shoulders while he sang and Vasquez played the guitar.

The tour continues and included performances at South by Southwest, one of which was featured in NPR Music’s series of live streaming video coverage, another broadcast live by RollingStone.com.

Middle Brother brings together three guitarists whose styles are distinct enough that if you close your eyes, you can identify which one of them is playing. It’s easy, too, if you’re a fan of their individual bands, to tell which guys wrote which songs on the Middle Brother album. They are talented musicians with a great reverence for their craft and for those who came before them, paving the way. Middle Brother is clearly an endeavor that pays homage to that tradition, and in doing so, it creates a legacy all its own.

Middle Brother Setlist

Blue Eyes
Mom and Dad
Thanks for Nothing
Blood and Guts
Me Me Me
Wilderness – Taylor Goldsmith solo
Million Dollar Bill
Middle Brother

People Turn Around  – Matt Vasquez with Taylor Goldsmith and Griffin Goldsmith
Down South in New Orleans

View more photos of each band here:

Deer Tick:  http://bit.ly/fDMhAl

Dawes:  http://bit.ly/hvxBWS

Middle Brother:  http://bit.ly/gC1D2V