“When he walks around town at home,” Willy Vlautin states in reference to Dan Eccles after a particularly stinging set of licks from the guitarist’s Telecaster, “people say, there goes the shredder.”
Bands on their last lap are meant to endure it due to contractual obligations or as an opportunity to cash in on the reunion craze; both cases often involve being heartily fed up of staring at the same faces on-stage and off year in, year out.
Frontman, songwriter and, following departure of bassist Dave Harding (Freddy Trujillo from Vlautin’s other band The Delines proves an apt replacement), sole original member Vlautin recently announced that the Portland, Oregon outfit will call it quits after 20-odd years and 10 studio albums once this current tour is completed. You wouldn’t know the band’s about to go their separate ways from the level of enthusiasm, energy and affection - both towards each other and the near-capacity audience – emitting from the stage.
As band members indulge in daft but entertaining asides about, amongst other things, their post-RF career plans (a fried chicken or Subway franchise looms large in collective future plans, apparently), it’s clear that Richmond Fontaine still enjoy each other’s company. The between-song banter occasionally alleviates the hefty weight of the subject matter. “He’d been up for three days”, Vlautin describes the incident that inspired Hallway’s white-knuckled account of finding a friend clutching a gun in a state of acute paranoia. “Let’s say he’d been studying for exams.” Pause for comic effect. “I’m not sure which school he went to...”
They must still love their songs too, if the commitment and oomph they’re dispatched with tonight is anything to go by. A large-riffing Lonnie, a gloriously ragged Contrails (Vlautin claims it was written for a breakfast cereal advert, despite its “whiskey, painkillers and speed” refrain) and a tense, punk-hued 43 in particular sound like the band have spent much of the five years between 2011’s claustrophobic garage-rock opera The High Country – from this distance, the only RF record since 2004’s widescreen Americana landmark Post To Wire not to merit instant access to the upper echelons of sunny-side-down American rock ‘n’ roots music – and this year’s valedictory return to form You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To at the musical gym; Eccles in particular pummels beautiful noises from his instrument in a brisk manner that suggests it’s done him wrong once too often.
A much-acclaimed author of four novels, Vlautin’s ability to draft entirely believable characters in equally believable jams in a few terse verses often hogs the spotlight when Richmond Fontaine is discussed. Deservedly so: the dead-ends, wasted opportunities and bad choices depicted in the likes of the tenderly delivered I Got Off The Bus – a man returns to the hometown he left abruptly under the darkest possible cloud years ago to find, well, nothing at all - could very easily revert to the kind of autopilot gloom-mongering that often lurks under the alt. country banner, were it not for Vlautin’s unparalleled ability to get us to care for these characters long after they’ve stopping caring properly about themselves. As the bittersweet hometown elegy I Can’t Black It Out If I Wake Up And Remember proves, the results can be almost unbearably moving.
However, it’s the band’s collective ability to perfectly complement these desolate tales and Vlautin’s threadbare voice – a little rougher than usual tonight – that makes Richmond Fontaine inspire the loyal cult following in evidence tonight. New album highpoint (and possibly the band’s most powerful moment to date) Night In The City is slowed down into a weary, ominous crawl; even if you couldn’t grasp the lyrics, the music alone would be enough to communicate the protagonist’s sense of entrapment as middle-age accounting of what life amounts to comes up short.
Adored by the few whilst unknown to the masses, Richmond Fontaine’s exit won’t attract the type of publicity that’s accompanied recent much-mourned musical departures. For those in the know, however, the band’s accrued a legend of almost similar stature. On tonight’s evidence, they continue to add weighty chapters to the band’s story even as the final curtain approaches.