Foraging for Richmond Fontaine: 5,000 Kilometers to Joyful Sadness
Back in the aughts, there was another legendary off-kilter music magazine, though its reign was short-lived. Comes With A Smile was a UK fanzine that sported stylish design, complemented by writers who fashioned incisive profiles of up-and-coming bands. And that name? Grand. Turns out they nicked it from a line in Red House Painters’ “24”, off their Colorful Hill recording– go find it. Best part of CwaS was that it pouched a CD with each issue. They only put out 19 magz, but #18 from 2005 is the one that made me mad for anything I could find by Richmond Fontaine.
Cut #10 on that disc was “Blur Out”. It opens with a subdued drum line and a spooky, come-hither guitar that could’ve come from Neil’s Old Black. Willy Vlautin’s (“Vuh-law-tin” – 3 syllables) voice is plaintive, with a weary, yet welcoming, patina.
“Just waaay-t until, I pull myself back again, and then you will see, that you don’t trouble me, like you do, but now the days they just fall apart, on a night you know i can barely stay at the house, barely stay at the house, oh at night.. Chorus: i just wanna go out on the town, i don’t care where i go or what i do, i just want to blur out it’s something i know how to do, to completely disappear from view…at 1:40 the twang puts his narrative on hold, Then “take your Galaxy and all your friends, just pack ’em all up and take them back to the midwest. soon i won’t wake up in the middle of the night, just wondering where you are, oh and i know, that soon the mention of your name won’t set me back down on the slide, oh and i know, that soon i won’t drive past claremont street, ah just to see our old house, see our old house.” The chorus takes up the last 87 seconds or so, Willy’s voice straining to express the desire & frustration, central to all his story songs, then, finally:
“i just wanna go out and blur out, from everything and everyone and you…”
It’s a sad one, for sure. But it had a hypnotic effect and I began to play it on the way home from mountain bike rides, buzzed from a couple of Founder’s Dirty Bastard 8.5 ABV Scotch Ale. The combination of post-ride depletion, high octane bier, and Vlautin’s sadsongscapes gave me a new approach to getting down our “hill”, a descent from 2,684′ to 1,250′. I called it “under-driving”, a strategy that has made us relatively invisible to the local fuzz for over 10 years.
I was teaching middle school to 10-14 year olds at the time and Fontaine struck me as the ultimate escapist music, not unlike Pink Floyd. I was in a happy marriage, with two above-average kids, and we lived in a small southwestern Pennsylvania community where life was a lot easier than our previous scene in the suburbs of New York City. But I did need to escape: from the toils of a teacher’s day, from the worries of a parent, from the sturm und drang, both real and imagined.
I tried to find information on the band, eventually learning that Willy was from Reno, Nevada and he met the other band members when he moved to Portland. Their earlier records featured Vlautin’s trademark gloomtastic tales, backed by a bunch of guys who played their asses off.
Fast forward to 2016. The lads from Portland announce that “You Can’t Go Back There If There’s Nothing To Go Back To” will be their last record. In the intervening years Vlautin had written four highly-regarded books (two were made into films), with a fifth in the works. His side band, The Delines, gives him the luxury of playing guitar without lead singer duties, a role he’s never cherished. With this unit, he writes all the songs, and has a couple of the Fontaines on board, but the real switch from RF’s prognovelrok is singer Amy Boone from Austin’s The Damnations. Their two records, with a third on the way, take you back in time to smoky lounges and sultry singers. Willy cited Sammi Smith as one of his favorite female country singers, and Boone inhabits his characters as though she had walked in their tired shoes.
So, with the specter of never seeing Richmond Fontaine growing more real every day, I considered my options. Back in the early days, there were a few national tours in a van that made the band dread the road. In time, they chose to play a circuit of clubs between Portland and Seattle. And, oh yeah, after a tour of Europe following their breakthrough 2004 “Post to Wire” record, they found a winning formula for touring: Make a record, play the Pacific Northwest, fly to the UK, skip over to Ireland, eventually finding fans in The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, too. I considered jetting to Ireland to catch Fontaine at the Kilkenny Roots Festival, but bands rarely play full sets at these affairs. I noticed that, after their extensive European tour, they were playing two cd release parties, one in Portland, the other in Seattle, then a final tour of Europe in the fall.
Our daughter Ellie attends college in San Diego and she’ll graduate next week. So I announced to my wife that I was driving to Portland to see Richmond Fontaine and I’d meet the rest of the family in California. This was met with mostly stony silence and a few questions, like “How long will you be gone?” and “Will you get a job when you come back?”. The final tally will be about 25 days on the road, and, ok, I will find work, but it may have to be in Portland, or Santa Rosa, or, daughter willing, San Diego.
Sunday, May 8th — left my brother’s home in Pittsburgh, drove thru Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and camped in Des Moines, Iowa. Took over 13 hours, but I listened to Larry Kirwan’s Celtic Crush, Tom Petty Radio, my own mixes, and Richmond Fontaine. Next morning, light rain had come, got an early start, encountered torrential downpours thru Nebraska, but made Boulder, Colorado by 4:00 P.M. My chiropractor moved there a couple of years ago and agreed to house me. A local bikeshop pointed me to the Canyon Road and 4 Mile Run and some beautifully carved trails. Out here, you have to make your peace with climbing, and I enjoyed an unscathed, though occasionally sphincter-tightening ride.
Day 3 was supposed to be relatively easy — 500 miles and about 8 hours. But I forgot my overnight bag and had to turn around 45 minutes into the drive, making it closer to a 10 hour day. Once out of Colorado, the sky in Wyoming is wide and the wind whips. Temps dropped considerably, from 60s to 30s over a couple of hours. The ride up Rt. 191 to Jackson Hole is barren and lonely, but I pulled in around 9:00 P.M. My buddy Jake and his wife are true mountain enthusiasts — backwoods skiers, rock climbers, mountain bikers, you name it. They decided on a trail for me the next morning and I learned what real climbing entails, though they said they were putting me on one of the less-punishing routes. Incredible vistas and an inordinate number of Alaskan Husky riding companions — I counted 7, about the same number of riders I saw.
I arrived in Boise, Idaho at dusk and stayed at an AirBnB, hosted by a woman my age who had taken up Buddhism 20 years ago. Her cozy home is dominated by Buddhas and other totems. In 2009, I saw a Cuban poet at our local college and he introduced me to D.T. Suzuki, whose book on Zen led to The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and even works like Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Buddhists are extraordinarily accepting people and we enjoyed a nice breakfast together before I set out for Portland. The ride west on Route 84 in Oregon takes you to the Columbia River Gorge and down into Portland. This was the first time I allowed myself to get excited and feel a sense of accomplishment that I’d stuck to my plan and covered over 5,000 km in five days. It was Thursday and temps were in the 80s with clear blue skies, not the bedraggled Portland I had heard about.
I went to Rogue Brewery that night and was treated to killer beers and splendid service. Next morning, I did the obligatory trip to Voodoo Donuts, made the Oyster Bar, then took a walk where I encountered a dude with a Stubbs t-shirt, from the venerable Austin venue. After our daughter Ellie’s freshman year in San Diego, we undertook the “A.N.N.” tour — Austin-New Orleans-Nashville and saw the Turnpike Troubadours at Stubbs. I asked whether he was from Austin and he said, “No, but I go to SXSW almost every year.” It occurred to me that Drew was probably in town for Richmond Fontaine and he affirmed my instincts. He and his amigo Ben are from San Leandro and took the red eye in from San Francisco. They were on the prowl for a Mexican joint called Santeria and, after several passes, we finally found our way in. Best part was that Santeria is adjacent to a strip club and each time we went to take a piss we passed thru a door that gave us a keen view of the, er, talent. Back at our table, we swapped rhapsodies about the Fontaine and bands like Possessed by Paul, N.Q. Arbuckle, and Scott Biram.
When I got to the show, there were about 20 people on line. I found my new RF amigos and soon a 40ish, fetching couple happened by. “Who is Richmond Fontaine? Is it worth it for us?” and similar questions poured forth. I took it upon myself to tell them that, well, yes, indeed-ee, it’s well worth it (tickets, btw, were 12 feckin’ bucks), and I think so much of them that I drove 3,000 miles to catch their act.
The rest is a grand cosmic blur. I had met Willy at the merch table before the show, happily busy among the fans, more church volunteer than rock god. When he learned about the pilgrimage I had taken, he tried to give me a cd. “Here, take this,” he said. “No thanks, got it.” This was repeated several times before we settled on a “I drink at the Chainsaw Sea, Home of the 16-ounce Misery Whip” bumper sticker.
Novel rock, someone called it. I met Portlandians who had followed the band for 20 years. After Mike Coykendall, then Scott McCaughey and The Minus Five scathed us with their fiery hooks and spot-on covers (Dylan from the former, Nowhere Man & The Ballad of John & Yoko from the Cincos), the band emerged. Willy’s vocals are delivered with eyes wide shut. Steel virtuoso Paul Brainard gifted us with lines that spoke of Buck Owens, The Flying Burrito Bros., and NRPS. They would not play any of my fab four on this night: Polaroid, El Tiradito, Contrails, or my gateway song, Blur Out. It mattered not. I hung with similarly mystic souls, digging the melange, equal parts country espousings, matched by Pink Floydean flourishes. I know they played “Hallway”, a “blow the roof off” take on “Lost in the Trees” and a bunch of the new stuff, but a fellow Fontainian saw me scribbling furiously in my pocket journal, trying to capture each song title. “Why don’t you just enjoy the show?” he asked. I stuffed my mini-notebook in the back pocket of my jeans, accessorized by a Car Wheels on a Gravel Road t-shirt, with “2 Kool 2B 4gotten” on the the back, my homage to RF’s idiosyncratic sadjoyness. And I segued into the Portland zeitgeist. They finished with “Willamette”, a song I didn’t know, but the locals’ beaming countenances made me feel like, maybe, just maybe, my madness matched that of the band, and I had an epiphany: We need to remember the grand times, remaining sensate to the prodigious gifts, Willy & the Lads just crushing it: “At night, at night, we sit by the banks of the Willamette River and we’d try and we’d try to piece together our lives…”