‘No tricks’ wrote poet and short story writer Raymond Carver in his short essay On Writing, and it’s advice that Willy Vlautin, whose work as both a lyricist and novelist owes more than a little to Carver’s terse, dirty realist takes on American blue collar life, has taken to heart. Attired in regulation plaid shirts and jeans (with the exception of bassist ‘Mad’ Dave Harding sporting an understated but fetchingly embroidered flowery number) with this band what you see is very much who they are. Like a more muted, downhome edition of Crazy Horse, the consistent excellence of both their recorded work and their live performances makes it easy to almost take them for granted. Writing as one whose tally of Richmond Fontaine gigs is now nudging double figures, I can attest: they won’t let you down.
Tonight they are joined by Amy Boone, of Austin band The Damnations, who provides vocals for Arlene, one of the characters from the band’s latest record, the novel-in-an-album The High Country, which they play in its entirety, from start to finish. Amy’s sister and fellow Damnation Deborah Kelley did the honours in the studio. It’s an intense, claustrophobic and harrowing experience, but delivered not without some customary humorous banter. Standouts include radio dial hopping saga ‘Driving Back To The Chainsaw Sea’ segueing into the manically spooky ‘Lost In The Trees’, and the desperately yearning ‘I Can See A Room’, reminiscent in sentiment to previous expressions of desire for domestic comfort and safety as ‘Two Broken Hearts’ and ‘Four Walls’.
Both of those favourites feature in the second half of the show, as part of a setlist which spans the group’s full career, beginning all the way back with ‘1968’ from 1997 debut Safety (later rerecorded for 2006’s comp of early songs, Obliteration By Time). There’s ‘Northline’ and ‘Western Skyline’ from Winnemucca, the title track and ‘Always On The Ride’ from Post To Wire, and ‘Two Alone’ and ‘Lonnie’ from We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River. Amy gets a turn to do The Damnations’ ‘No Sign Of Water’.
Because they do the simple things right, what’s easy to overlook with Richmond Fontaine is the tremendous subtlety of their playing. The rhythm section of Harding and drummer Sean Oldham are unflashy but not above the occasional appropriately timed freakout, while guitarist Dan Eccles coaxes plangent vibrato from his axe, courtesy of judicious use of his Ernie Ball volume pedal, the swelling sound fading in and out of the mix, particularly on the extended outros to ‘Two Alone’ and ‘Four Walls’. As singer/guitarist, Vlautin is undeniably the focus, but he channels the attention so that he becomes just one element in a satisfying whole.
What’s also evidenced from tonight’s show is, to put it country simple, just how much this band is loved, at least in these parts. It’s a rowdy Friday night audience and The Workman’s Club is packed to the gills, but the boys take it all in their stride, incorporating rather than being intimidated by cajoling, sometimes raucous heckles. People feel at home with Richmond Fontaine, and appreciative of their talent, work rate, and patent authenticity. As almost annual visitors to these shores, if they have thus far eluded you, it would be extremely unwise to let it happen again.