The long trudge up the hill to Alexandra Palace reaps a heck of a reward – this was a first visit to the recently re-opened Alexandra Place Theatre and to say it is a remarkable space is an understatement. You might know it from the recent series of Later with Jools Holland – it’s a Victorian theatre which fell on hard times and that brokedown palace feel has been maintained for its restoration to a viable public space. It’s like Omeara on steroids, and if the step-up from the backrooms of pubs to plusher venues like The Stables had seemed noteworthy on previous tours by The Delines, then this was taking it to another level entirely. A big space which attracted a pretty big audience.
The Delines are, of course, Americana favourites as our recent survey of the greatest albums of the 21st Century (so far) proved and for this tour they not only had the recent ‘The Sea Drift‘ album to showcase but also the just released ‘Lost Duets‘ single as well as some new songs. The Delines – Willy Vlautin, Amy Boone, Sean Oldham and Cory Gray – were joined by Dave Little on bass, as has been the case on those previous UK tours alluded too; and they opened on a low note, the gentle whisper of regret that is ‘This Ain’t No Getaway.‘ Having set the tempo to slow, The Delines continued down the same path of desperation with a new song ‘Lorraine’s Back In Town‘ which contrasts a long sentence for a minor crime to a lifetime of impending failure following release – as Amy sings of Lorraine’s search for a job turning into a descent into hopelessness,”a felon ain’t supposed to make it,” Cory Gray underscores it with his mournful trumpet and Willy sings backing vocals hoping for a small victory, “don’t miss your bus Lorraine.” It is, in other words, a perfect Delines song.
Amy Boone conveyed all the feeling of the emotional tragedy of the soulful ‘He Don’t Burn For Me‘, here’s a love that has really burnt out with only sorrow and regret remaining. Painfully beautiful, to the extent that “Cheer Up Charley” seems almost upbeat with its buck you up repetition of the title as a chorus making a simple plea for a friend to accept that they’re on their own now: “you know your wife, she ain’t coming back / and I know she broke you and it breaks my heart to see you laid so flat.” There’s some similar tough love on ‘The Old Haunted Place‘ with the rejection of family demands for assistance after a lifetime of doing nothing to deserve it – it’s a song that has the courage to undercut that final victory of breaking free from familial shackles with a slow coda of “so why do I feel guilty for wanting to turn my back on that old haunted place and felony flats?” Amy Boone delivers the seething anger, and the self-doubt and both are so believable.
We were, by this time, owed something a little lighter and by goodness we got it. Willy Vlautin introduced ‘The Golden State‘ with some insight into the male protagonist saying “I like him, personally, because he likes to chug beer in bed….women seem to outgrow shitty motels….I don’t understand women.” Both Willy and Amy have a lot of fun with this duet of a bickering couple with not much money to their name but perhaps a little partying left in them. It’s that rare thing in The Delines catalogue – a slice of pure joy.
Three albums – not counting limited releases like the tour only ‘Scenic Sessions‘ – stray singles and songs meant that there was little room in the set for songs from The Delines’ debut ‘Colfax‘, but the one song that made it ‘The Oil Rigs At Night‘ is yet another demonstration of Willy Vlautin’s ability to capture scenes and internal monologues and make them into relatable songs, his language is so sparse and yet he conveys so much. It was a song that gained a little further rounding out with David Murphy adding pedal steel.
There’s a returning to ‘The Sea Drift‘ for that album’s opener ‘Little Earl‘ which features some killer keyboards – and that goes double when Cory Gray plays both keyboards and trumpet. And the set closer would be the sublime ‘Drowning in Plain Sight‘, a full return to the opener of the night in its sense of desperation and frustration and inability, finally, to escape, “gas gauge is on empty but I don’t stop driving / ‘cos the second I do I swear I’ll lose my mind.” It’s a perfect little cinemagraphic vignette, you can almost see the camera panning away from the scene as the song plays out. But before getting to this point and the standing ovation that brought the band for the encore there were a couple more new songs. ‘A Left Hook like Frasier‘, a song introduced by Willy Vlautin with “We’re going to get a bit groovy – for us – but it’s as dark as Fuck , although Amy wouldn’t say it like that“, it is a recounting of useless men who had been useless boyfriends, as a way of recognising that “if you want to hurt yourself even more, then men like this will help you.” But it is groovy – to the point that it was a shame to be seated. ‘Waiting out the Heat – with Chico, Ruby and Jean‘ is also pretty groovy, a slower, relaxed groove befitting a group just hanging out. Could this be The Delines turning a corner and embracing happiness? Everyone’s either drunk or, like Maxine, high, and perhaps they can “hear gunshots but they are miles away” but nothing bad is happening right here and right now This is, in a very limited sense, the good life arriving.
The encore of course put us straight with an empty life (‘I’m just a ghost‘), and the other new duet ‘My Blood Bleeds Darkest Blue‘ which Amy described as being about “a couple who love each other so much that they want to kill each other” and on which Willy is surely channelling his inner Lee Hazlewood. We finally returned to hopeful love on ‘Let’s Be Us Again.‘ Because, there’s always a nugget of hope in any album or gig by The Delines – it’s just often quite small and in need of a good polishing, ironic because The Delines themselves have all the polish one could want. Song after song that is just perfect – and even more so with the impressive sound in this venue. Memorable is the word.
Arborist – also known as Mark McCambridge – opened the night with music that Amy Boone rightly described as perfect for preparing the ground for The Delines, with the Belfast singer-songwriter, accompanied by pedal steel player David Murphy, providing the requisite level of doomed life throughout his downbeat set. That touch of pedal steel just added to the gothic Americana feel of songs like ‘Here Comes The Devil‘ whilst ‘Here Comes the Mountain‘ is a definite slough of despair.