28 September 2011
Gleefully and mercilessly intent on setting song moods to manic mode in many cases, Richmond Fontaine retain an endearing ability to be rockers, hushed raconteurs and (thanks to the depth and creativity of frontman/novelist Willy Vlautin’s lyrics) first-class Americana roots exponents. They are also a group of musicians definitely having fun in a live setting. It’s a beguiling mix many would be advised to follow. They are glad we’ve turned up, and so are we.
Added to their undoubted charms and fine tunes is a steely edge to take chances. This they are clearly doing on their latest, demanding UK tour with 19 gigs on 19 successive nights. Post-show, Vlautin told me The High Country was a risky release, given it’s a 17-track story – but, he agreed, so was the brilliant, landmark Post To Wire some seven years ago. Playing the new one in full – desperate young lovers, violent deaths, dead-end jobs, miserable, rain-lashed surroundings, a hard-drinking, drugged-up logging community with all the appeal of a muddy puddle – is a gamble the foursome is prepared to take.
It might have benefited from a spoken prologue and while it doesn’t always flow because of the brief breaks for instrument changes and slugs of beer, The High Country live is a bracing experience, lit up by two stunning punk-stained, Bad Seed-ish rock tracks, 'The Chainsaw Sea' and 'In The Trees'. These are bass and drum driven pleasures with the crackle of Dan Eccles’ guitar lighting the gloom of the songs settings. “Crystal was laughing and then she weren’t /Her clothes were on a pile by the cooler but she weren’t /I screamed her name ‘til my voice broke/But she was gone,” Vlautin informed us during 'In The Trees' as the track’s urgency intensified. With a smile, we were told to expect further murders along the way. For my money, these two songs can enter Richmond Fontaine’s all-time greatest tracks list with ease.
The section of the tale, where one of the characters twiddles and re-tunes car radio stations in the hope of finding sounds he likes, was terrific. The band bashed and weaved a merry route through country, blues and whatever seemed to take their fancy. Drummer Sean Oldham and Dave Harding on bass, plus hard-hitting Eccles, made sure Vlautin’s literary artistry was well nurtured despite his brutal take on the lives and lifestyles of people many of us would rather shun than empathise with. Amy Boone, from the Texan band The Damnations, slotted into the set more than admirably, offering welcome patches of harmony with Vlautin to contrast the overall quilt of grit, doom and desolation.
Their togetherness has never been in doubt and this gig was ample evidence and confirmation that Richmond Fontaine try to be different. The High Country musical adventure may not be as gripping as a page-turner of a novel – like those penned by Vlautin to acclaim in recent years – but the whole idea worked, and it’s a harsh critic who would claim otherwise.
For the final hour of the show we were returned to more familiar territory – 'Post To Wire' plus 'Nashville Skyline' and one of the band’s earliest numbers '1968' filled a round-up slot that was faultless, unless anyone’s personal favourites failed to emerge from their collection. Bigger bands than this stick carefully to a formula that works, a format they refuse to change for fear of alienating fans. Richmond Fontaine might not be classed a big name band, but they relish a challenge and have the musical ability to triumph. In their field, they are definitely one of the best and we should all stand to applaud them.