Kevin McGrath visits 10 Feet Tall in Cardiff to witness another live performance by Willy Vlautin’s Richmond Fontaine.
Before the final song of a thoroughly engaging gig, Willy Vlautin felt an apology was due his audience ‘for depressing the hell out of you with my sad-sack songs’. Now admittedly, if you’re ready to party like it’s 1999, checking out a Richmond Fontaine show isn’t going to be right at the top of your to-do list. Nevertheless, there were plenty of laughs to be had between songs as Willy regaled us with tales of his mother’s degenerate boyfriends and his band mates exploding motorcycles. Vlautin and RF side-kick Dan Eccles, who provided able support on guitar, broke off from touring with the legendary Americana outfit, The Jayhawks, to play a stripped down set of songs, taken largely from their classic albums Post to Wire, The Fitzgerald and We Thought the Freeway Sounded Like a River. Hearing these songs, pared to the bone, allows for a fuller appreciation of Vlautin’s qualities as a songwriter.
As a lyricist, Vlautin eschews eye-catching rhyme in favour of understated character studies. His songs are thumbnail sketches of America’s troubled souls, in which every well-honed phrase rings heartbreakingly true. So, on the touchingly sincere ‘The Boyfriends’, the single line, ‘she said she wasn’t used to drinking, but I could tell she was’ ,foreshadows the end of a burgeoning relationship. Similarly, on ‘Lonnie’, which is sung tonight with a desperate fragility, a man finds he can no longer make excuses for his deadbeat pal, ‘I saw your aunt in the store, she couldn’t keep from saying terrible things about you. But the thing is, they’re all true’.
There are some up-tempo moments though, in the shape of the wonderfully catchy ‘Post to Wire’ and its companion piece ‘Always on the Ride’. Disappointingly, the bands most ‘radio friendly’ song, ‘Capsized’, is aborted after its first verse goes horribly wrong, with Vlautin blaming an embarrassing ‘brain lapse’ before launching into ‘You Can Move Back Here’.
The highlights of the gig though, are the twin morality tales, ‘I Fell into Painting Houses in Phoenix, Arizona’ (where a painter quits his job in protest at the exploitation of a Mexican immigrant, declaring softly, ‘I didn’t show up the next day, I ain’t shit, but I ain’t that way’), and the strikingly sad ‘$87 and a Guilty Conscience that Gets Worse the Longer I Go’ (a young man turns his friend in to the police to prevent a serious crime), both from the often underrated Thirteen Cities album. These are gut-wrenching songs and they serve to confirm that Vlautin has earned his place at the top table of progressive American songwriters. Alongside Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earl, Vlautin chronicles the brutal effects of big capitalism on the lives of vulnerable people. He steadfastly refuses to sanitise his songs or romanticise his characters. He writes with an un-flinching honesty, a rare integrity and an open heart. Tonight’s show is testimony to his mastery of the songwriter’s craft and further reinforces the view that Vlautin’s is the most authentic voice in Americana music today.
Click here for Wales Arts Review’s interview with Richmond Fontaine frontman, Willy Vlautin.