Richmond Fontaine leader Willy Vlautin is increasingly at ease on stage, and Wednesday night's show proved to be one of his best in Utah despite featuring only half of the band.---
Portland quartet Richmond Fontaine is one of those bands that somehow has found greater fame in Europe than in its own country, and that's particularly perturbing for fans of Vlautin's entrancing narratives steeped in imagery of the American West. When a guy constantly name-checks places like Rawlins, Wyoming, Winnemucca, Nevada, and Santa Fe, New Mexico in his songs, you'd expect he'd find an eager audience throughout the West.
Their albums consistently land in various Top 10 critics' lists in England, and while the band's American audience isn't huge, it IS rabid. Wednesday's show--done in conjunction with a book signing Vlautin did earlier in the day for his third novel, Lean on Pete--was ample evidence of why people fall in love with Vlautin's songs.
Accompanied by Richmond Fontaine's endlessly creative guitarist Dan Eccles, Vlautin took the stage with only his acoustic guitar, a cocktail and a head full of words that either spill out in bursts, or fill in the sparse, open spaces of some of his tunes in a more efficient style.
Songs from the new We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River album provided many of the show's highlights, including the early version of "The Boyfriends" and the heart-wrenching "Two Alone," which Vlautin introduced with a bit of sound advice that he said informed his writing of the song: "If you're going to sleep in your car, make sure you buy a big car."
Vlautin filled the time between songs with a running commentary that was loose and consistently funny. If he wasn't detailing an all-night wrestling match between Richmond Fontaine band members on a past trip to Utah, he was singing the praises of Sam Weller's book store. In introducing "Post to Wire" as his effort to write a hit when the band found himself $15,000 in debt, he joked that he instead ended up with a "half-assed pop song." Naturally, he has a proficiency in that, too, because "Post to Wire" was one of the best songs of the night, even minus the female co-vocals on the recorded version.
The Post to Wire album filled much of the 21-song set list, delivered in about 80 minutes. "Barely Losing" and "Two Broken Hearts" were both excellent. And the spoken-word pieces that divide that album ("Walter's on the Lam," "Postcard from California," etc.) were delivered with rapid-fire lyrics and atmospheric playing from Eccles that evoked the dusty highways Vlautin's characters call home.
Vlautin's encore reached even further back into his catalog, with "Winner's Casino" and the expansive "Western Skyline," from the 2002 Winnemucca album. Both are familiar favorites among Vlautin's fans, and were delivered with no less skill or passion than when they were brand new.
Much like the rest of Vlautin's writing, whether in book or song form, those tunes are proving to be timeless classics. And you could say the same about the man himself.