Charles Eager was there for a short but sweet Americana set from an amiable and charismatic band.
Thanks to my mad guitar teacher, who sometimes—this night included—doubles the length of my lesson seemingly arbitrarily, I arrived late to this concert, missing the first song or two by supporting act Alasdair Roberts. Walking, shamefaced, into the Howard Assembly Room, I saw on stage a stick-thin Scotsman in early middle age. The first curiosity was how he managed to play the guitar when it hung so low on his body that it seemed uncomfortable, his picking hand cramped and clamped onto the guitar body, and his left hand missing notes as a result of the struggle. (Can you tell I’d just been at a lesson?)
Nevertheless, Roberts overcame these slight technical troubles and delivered fine, atmospheric folk songs with some noteworthy lyrics here and there. Indeed, I felt at times half-certain that they had been written in iambic rhythms, and perhaps even pentameter (although I didn’t have the leisure to be able to count each syllable, and so couldn’t be sure). Conscious or not, this was quite impressive. ‘Reading’ these lines back to myself, it seemed that they would make good poetry, even without the music.
Roberts’ set came to an end after about half an hour, and the audience of the jam-packed Howard Assembly Room (I never see it quite this busy for Classical concerts!) flew swiftly to the bar. As we moved back to our seats twenty minutes later with our beers and wines (in plastic cups, of course), curious audience members had the opportunity to see Willy Vlautin—as songwriter, in some ways the star of the show—humbly and unremarkably tuning his guitar on stage. He was simultaneously dressed up and down in a loose fitting, charcoal flannel suit, claret shirt (no tie), and clunky unpolished shoes which, with the suit, put one in mind of a schoolboy’s uniform. With his Gibson SG, the look was completed: Willy Vlautin looked like the folk music equivalent to Angus Young!
He went quietly offstage and returned a few moments later with the rest of the band. The applause was already great for performers who hadn’t yet performed anything, which told me that, although I was new to the band (though a fan of Willy Vlautin since his appearance at Howard Assembly roughly a year ago), they evidently had a number of ardent fans in the crowded room.
The applause was especially great for lead singer Amy Boone, who walked on stage with a cane (owing to her involvement in a bad car crash in early 2016). The band promptly—after dealing with some “hot mics”—began the title track from their latest album (their third), “The Imperial”. Like many of the band’s songs, it is musically simple, but the music creates a wonderful, restrained backdrop for the painting and evocative storytelling of Willy Vlautin’s lyrics, which are what really set the material apart.
This is not to cast the band in the shadow of those lyrics, however, since throughout the night they are unfailingly tight, well rehearsed, and, when they want to, play very expressively. This was true especially of singer Amy Boone, whose soulful expression fits Vlautin’s lyrics so well, one would not have guessed that there was any seam between the author and the singer of the text. Boone seems really to have imbibed these deep lyrics and made them a part of her.
When Vlautin played acoustically last year in Leeds, I came away thinking that he was no great shakes at guitar (in fact, I recall that he himself joked about this), but that the man can write a good song and a good novel. However, on this occasion—perhaps from practising, perhaps because electric guitar is easier to play than acoustic, or perhaps without the distraction of having to sing throughout each number—his playing was very on point: expressive, precise.
The rhythm section—Freddy Trujillo (bass) and Sean Oldham (drums)—played with restraint, and really helped to create the backbone of the show. This can be heard on their recordings, too. The music, as I have said, generally sways between two and four chords, and often does less rather than more, and the rhythm section does a lot to keep the rhythm interesting and engaging.
Perhaps the musical star of the show, however, was keyboardist and trumpeter Cory Gray. When Amy Boone mentioned (whilst introducing the band) that he had arranged all the strings and brass on the recordings, I was not terribly surprised since, to a number of songs, he had already added very curious, even jarring—yet at the same time, complementary and non-invasive—harmony, and his many jazz-inflected (not, decidedly not, jazz) solos on the trumpet declared his musical learning and skill over and over.
Over the course of a brief set the music stayed broadly the same—walking-pace, balladic songs which followed mostly the same structure—but a few triple time and more upbeat numbers added variety and, as I have said, the lyrics to each song made it engaging whilst one would listen along, our interests somehow awakened in tales of all sorts of down-and-out people dealing with the various knocks life can give. Occasionally these stories fell into being merely prosaic (as when the narrator of one song opens the scene with words about a fight at Walgreen’s), but were largely poetic and atmospheric.
Throughout the night the sound was clear and balanced and, I might add, not painfully loud—a feature which mars many electric shows. Volume was eschewed for clarity, and this was most welcome to my old ears. I also enjoyed the band’s humorous rapport with the crowd. Perhaps my favourite moment of this sort was when Amy Boone said that it was boring but… the band were really happy that they managed to do a load of laundry earlier that day in Leeds—at which a huge, half-ironic cheer came from the crowd, with much collective laughter from band and audience.
Although I preferred the intimacy and the literary dimension (he having read last time from his novels) of Willy Vlautin’s solo acoustic show last year, this show also had a rare intimate atmosphere, and I am sure will prove memorable for me and for the audience, who gave the band a deservedly thunderous applause as they left the stage.
The Delines continue their UK tour until 6 Feb.
Feature photograph provided by Opera North.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.