A literate and uplifting performance at the Real Music Club from Willy Vlautin and Co
Willy Vlautin has been a busy man this year. Although the band that he fronts, Richmond Fontaine, haven’t released an album since 2011’s The High Country, the unassuming yet charming singer-songwriter from Reno, Nevada recently published his fourth novel, The Free.
He has also undertaken a promotional tour from January to April taking in America, Britain and Ireland to promote the book, including a memorable talk and solo performance at the Ulster Museum at the end of January.
Four months later and he’s back in the city to play The Real Music Club at the Errigle Inn with his new outfit The Delines, whose debut album Colfax (the majority of songs written by Vlautin) has been garnering rave reviews in the music press. A ‘sister’ band to Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin has passed vocal duties on to Amy Boone of The Damnations.
Joined on this tour by Richmond Fontaine drummer Sean Oldham, Cory Gray on keyboards and trumpet, and bassist Freddy Trujillo, Vlautin is content to play guitar and provide occasional backing vocals on a set of smoky, late night southern soul songs.
Before the main event though, Ireland’s own The Lost Brothers take to the stage and woo the packed venue with tender vocal harmonies and gorgeous melodies fit for a headlining performance. Oisín Leech and Mark McCausland may not be actual brothers, but their spiritual affinity raises the ghosts of The Everly and Louvin Brothers in a performance of self-penned folk ballads as fine as their close harmony forebears.
Cherry picking tunes from their three albums (Trails of the Lonely Parts I & III, So Long, John Fante and The Passing of the Night), the pair's tales of lost love, regret and restless farewells could be mistaken for folk standards – their sound is timeless. Like the best folk artists they pilfer melodies from the past, transform them and make them their own.
Highlights include ‘Who Could Love You More?’ (with its melody reminiscent of Dylan’s ‘When The Ship Comes In') and ‘Now That The Night Has Come’, which channels Hank Williams’ ‘I Saw the Light'. The strength of the songwriting is such that renditions of the traditional ‘Corinna, Corrina’ and Ricky Nelson’s classic heartbreak ballad ‘Lonesome Town’ could easily be mistaken for originals.
Set closer ‘Under the Turquoise Sky,’ a seafaring ballad of breathtaking beauty, is the perfect conclusion to a wonderful performance.
It’s just before 9.30pm when The Delines take to the stage, though from the first notes of opener ‘Calling In’ you could be forgiven for thinking it’s already the wee small hours of the morning, such is the mood the band create.
Over brushed drums and gently strummed guitar, lead vocalist Amy Boone tells the tale of a couple hiding away from the pain of the world outside, drowning in gin and taking small comfort from the fact that ‘darkness ain’t such a hard road if we don’t go down it alone'.
Vlautin’s story songs detail lives spent in the margins of society, peopled with characters beaten down by disappointment and bad choices. ‘Colfax Avenue’ is a cousin to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Highway Patrolman', with the song's narrator searching the streets and bars for her younger brother gone off the rails since returning from a foreign war. ‘He’s just a kid who’s seen too much,’ Boone sings, her voice filled with sorrow and a plea for understanding.
Musically the band provide tight, soulful accompaniment to the suite of songs. Drummer Oldham is particularly impressive, his percussion the beating heart of the southern musical stew. Vlautin’s chopped guitar lines nod to Stax legend Steve Cropper, whilst bassist Trajillo and keyboardist Gray add bottom and colour respectively.
It’s Boone who is the star of the show, though. Her voice, at once tender and resigned, brings to life the women who inhabit these songs, whether it’s the wife running from a crumbling marriage in ‘The Oil Rigs at Night’ or the lover of ‘Witchita Ain’t So Far Away', which seems to imagine the woman on the other end of the phone of Jimmy Webb’s ‘Witchita Lineman’ (made famous by Glen Campbell). Her hands, like small birds, flutter at her sides as she spills out their confessions and doubts.
The band play all the songs from the album, as well as some judiciously chosen covers including Webb Pierce’s drunken country lament ‘There Stands the Glass’ (a duet between Vlautin and Boone) and fellow Portland, Oregon band Delorean’s majestic ‘What One Bottle Can Do', both of which slip seamlessly into the mood of heartfelt desperation.
Frujillo has his moment in the spotlight singing his self-penned ‘Ride on Freddie Fender', a tribute to the Mexican-American country artist famous for his hits ‘Before The Next Teardrop Falls’ and ‘Wasted Days and Wasted Nights'. There is also room for keyboardist Gray to play trumpet on a jazz-inflected instrumental number, which flares like the dying embers of a fire.
The main set finishes with ‘He Told Her The City Was Killing Him', a heartbreaking tale of a middle-aged woman stuck in a dead-end town with an abusive partner, who ‘stares out the window feeling old / such a price to pay for not wanting to be alone’.
Boone returns to the stage on her own for the first encore, playing keyboards on a cover of Randy Newman’s ‘Sandman’s Coming', a none-too-reassuring lullaby which asserts that ‘it’s a great big dirty world / if they say it ain’t they’re lying'.
The rest of the band return for ‘State Line', a song about a woman attempting a half-hearted escape from her circumstances, who only makes it as far as the title says before returning to her fate. A lovely country waltz, ‘Heart, Trust and Pride’ follows before the night is brought to a close with ‘82nd Street,’ which allows a chink of light to enter the darkness as the song’s narrator watches the sun come up on a new life that can only be an improvement on the life she’s led so far. For how long, though, is left unsung.
You could be forgiven for thinking that watching The Delines perform these songs would be a depressing experience, imbued as they are with such sadness. Instead, it’s uplifting. In part it’s the beauty of the music, the skill of Vlautin’s words and the wonder of Boone’s voice – the audience leave warmed by the intimacy of shared experience. If, as is said, trouble shared is trouble halved, we can all rest a little easier in our beds.
Visit the Real Music Club website for information on forthcoming concerts.