The Delines played the second night of their second UK tour of the year at The Stables, which offered quite a contrast to the venues they packed back in February. Back then it would be somewhere like Cambridge’s rammed full Portland Arms that they were gracing for an all standing gig. The Stables is much plusher, larger and all seated – and was perhaps a little over half-full: the perils of playing on Bonfire Night one can only assume. For The Delines are riding high on the back of their second album ‘The Imperial’ which came out several years and a car crash after their superb debut ‘Colifax’.
The Delines formed out of the dissolution of Richmond Fontaine and saw Willy Vlautin step back from the lead vocal duties in favour of Amy Boone, although the sharply written vignettes of lives falling apart and prospects stalling still flow from his pen. It was an inspired move, as Amy Boone more than sings these songs – she embodies them, every hurdle to be overcome, every lapse of judgement, all the guilt and the shame and the regret that Vlautin writes of, comes to vivid life through her emotional vocals and jerky body movements and gestures. As a lead singer she certainly has presence.
The set is approximately book-ended by two songs from an off-album release, ‘Eight Floors Up’ and ‘Wait for Me’ both draw directly from Amy Boone’s experience, and they drip with the pain of prolonged hospital treatment. ‘Eight Floors Up’ is all about the pain, the guitar introduction scratchy and the words that follow so powerful and so chilling: “Can’t you see the shape I’m in ? / Can’t you see the state I’m in ? It’s coming now, it’s coming to get me, come on give me my shot now / … / Morphine, you tell me, it’s the only friend I need.” ‘Wait for Me’ draws together all the thoughts of the band being able to continue and has Boone channel this through the continuing constraint of a hospital bed; there’s a wish to escape back to life and the now cogent terror of pain relief: “Morphine is my jailer and my king”, oozes out over Cory Grant’s muted trumpet – it’s a perfect cinemagraphic scene from some unmade noir.
The thing about The Delines is that they are, as an ensemble, perfect. Sure Willy was having trouble with his amp but the odd crackle just added, if anything, to the dark undercurrent of the music. With a rhythm section of Sean Oldham on drums and, added for the tour, bass player David Little holding everything nicely down and the incredible Cory Gray on piano and trumpet, sometimes both at the same time, there’s a completeness to the sound. More than the oft-claimed country-soul, on songs like ‘Waiting on the Blue’ we’re deep into a soulful blues, with echoey piano lines and words that escape into the room with a weary despair. It demands a hush, demands and gets it. Or there’s the righteous stomp of ‘That Haunted Place’ as reflection, “Oh Eileen was the only one who kept me from living on the streets, you all turned your back on me” gives way to anger, “It took every little bit to get free / now you say Lily’s sick, Erwin’s fading fast, Carol’s hocked everything / emptied the savings account but still the mortgage is defaulting / that I owe you this / and I owe you that.”
There’s no point holding back on this. With his literate songwriting, Willy Vlautin is injecting a special magic into this band – nothing written for The Delines is anything less than the equal of the best of Richmond Fontaine. The best. The slow burning slowed down girl group vibe of ‘Eddie and Polly’ has perfection in is turns of phrase, whether it’s “Eddie and Polly go into town. Desperately in love, desperate and in Love” or the easy wisdom of “New Orleans ain’t no place to be broke, but they’re too young to understand that there ain’t no good place…to be broke.” Rarely do all these elements of a perfect band, perfect singer and perfect songs come together. The Delines are therefore to be missed at one’s own peril. Anyone who still needs convincing should listen to the battered life story that is ‘Holly the Hustle’ or the absolute agony of faded away love that is ‘He Don’t Burn for Me’ – Amy Boone delivers this particular heartbreak with a fittingly subdued and restrained passion. Beautiful.
As an opener, Those Pretty Wrongs – who are Jody Stephens (of Big Star) on vocals and Luther Russell on acoustic guitar – played their latest album through in its entirety. There’s a certain Mercury Rev feel to their songs – attention holding and shot through with a frailty as well as hinting at huge vistas, giant skyscapes and important stuff like the transitory nature of friendship and love.