Richmond Fontaine’s Swan Song in Seattle
It was a night full of contradictions. I’d never heard of Richmond Fontaine until just a few months ago. The Portland band has been around over 20 years. On Saturday, May 14, they played a final show in Seattle. I’m now a new fan of a band that is breaking up. Great. I’m late to the party–er, funeral once again.
The death of Richmond Fontaine will be prolonged a few more months; but here in Seattle, they celebrated their long life surrounded by friends and musical family. There will be at least one more show in Oregon, and an Ireland/UK farewell tour in October before they pull the plug. They’re ending amicably and leaving us with a parting gift: a fantastic new album fittingly titled You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To.
I binge-listened to RF’s albums over the last few weeks, trying to catch up before we hit the show. Singer-songwriter and acclaimed author Willy Vlautin‘s lyrics paint desolate pictures of the downtrodden, lonely, broke, the unlucky, the abandoned–the outcasts of society. Tales of addiction, break-ups, desperation, and downward spirals are common themes throughout the ten albums. Some characters are likable losers who were dealt a bad hand in life or have paid dearly for their bad choices. But there is also a feeling, just a glimmer, a hint, that once in a while, one of those effed-up kids he writes and sings about is going to be alright. Each day that I listened, I always circled back to their latest release, the thirteen songs on You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To. It’s depressing as hell at times, and yet I wanted to hear it again and again. I connected and empathized with the characters. The up-tempo melodies of some of the songs offset the melancholy lyrics. Balance.
I also read Willy Vlautin’s first of four books called The Motel Life. Although the heartbreaking story and sympathetic characters absolutely gutted me, I wanted to read more and was sad that it had to end. I plan on purchasing the rest of his books. Feel free to do the same here: http://willyvlautin.com/store/ Rumor has it, his fifth book is in the works. According to Willy, when his personal life is falling apart, he writes songs. When he’s healthy, out jogging, he’s probably writing a book.
The day of the show was dark, gloomy, and rainy–so contradictory to the blue-sky day before, which sizzled Seattle with record-breaking temperatures.
We arrived at The Sunset Tavern early and made our way to the very front of the stage, right after the doors opened. There is nothing like standing in the front row of an intimate venue. I love watching the band, up close and personal. I like catching their nuances: the onstage banter and inside jokes; a grimace while hitting a big chord; a tapping foot; a sly, knowing smile when a rare wrong note is hit; nimble fingers finding the frets; glances and nods when things are going well. RF was no exception. One could tell they have a healthy, brotherly bond with each other, even though the band was on its way out.
If they love each other so much, why are they breaking up? Their original bass player, Dave Harding moved to Denmark, for one thing. Listen to Willy Vlautin’s answers here:
While in Ireland, Willy spoke with Martin Bridgeman on a radio broadcast regarding the breakup, the new album, and the crafting of his songs and stories: http://kclr96fm.com/folkroots-interview-willy-vlautin-152016/
For this Seattle show, the mature audience knew its band and was there to give them a final sendoff with support and love. Although I was a newbie here, I still felt accepted and comfortable among them. It was fun to watch the crowd, too, as many sang along with Willy or nodded their heads in acknowledgement to a song, and loudly clapped and whooped after each one.
Richmond Fontaine began the set with my favorite song off their new album called “Wake Up Ray”. Here is a live version from Oregon Public Broadcasting:
Willy’s lyrics tear at my heart:
Wake Up Ray
It ain’t no use, ain’t no use
Maybe some guys just ain’t meant to
I was living in Montana once and I was married
For a while it rolled so easy
But she got to where she couldn’t stand our place
She got to where she cringed at the way I slept and ate
I bought her a bird, a finch she called little Joe
And then one night she blew into a rage
In a snowstorm she ran outside and opened up the cage
Wake up Ray let’s get out of here
This town’s done nothing it’s clear but try to do us in
Wake up Ray, the sun’s coming up and still I can’t stop thinking
How can someone you love so much grow against you so?
All I did, all I did was try to toe that line
The same line you see everyone else toe
Now all I remember is running through the snow
Looking for Little Joe as the wind blowed
Wake up Ray, I need a cup of coffee in a bad way
Let’s get out of here this town ain’t done nothing
It’s clear but try to do us in
The Seattle show included most songs from their latest album and also dove into tracks from the last two decades.There were some last-minute changes to the original list, too. Their stage performance was tight, energized and faster-paced than some of their recorded songs–fueled, I’m sure, by the enthusiastic audience. Early on, longtime fans shouted out song requests, and Willy acknowledged a few with a wide-eyed nod, or laughed at their persistence.
Willy would stop once in a while and explain the origin of a song, such as the dark and ominous “Hallway” from 2003’s Post to Wire. He said he used to meet a friend for breakfast at a cafe, and one day he didn’t show up. Willy went to his house and found the friend in his tighty-whities, hiding in the hall with a gun. Apparently, he was on a coke binge and had been up for three days. “He almost shot me that day. I never met him for breakfast after that.”
“Let’s Hit One More Place” from the new album was dedicated to Scott McCaughey of The Minus 5, who headlined this night. Willy said he’s been a fan of The Minus 5 for 20 years, and channeled Scott when he wrote this song.
“Two Friends Lost At Sea” was based on another true story. One of Willy’s favorite Portland punk bands was Dead Moon. When people are excited about a band, they like to tell their friends. Sometimes, that leads to a wonderful shared experience. Other times, like in Willy’s case, it ruins the band for them. He made the mistake of introducing a girlfriend to the band. Later, she broke up with him. The next time he saw her was at Dead Moon’s show. She was making out with some new guy in the front row. Ruined.
Although he seemed a little shy onstage and mostly sang with his eyes closed, he was very personable, friendly, and humble in the merch line before and after the show. He greeted each fan (including me), listened intently to their stories, and seemed grateful to them for showing up. There’s a self-deprecating charm about him, as if he is genuinely surprised by his fame and the fact that his books and music are treasured by so many people around the world. Later, he told me it’s luck. I believe his work ethic and true passion for crafting his stories and music might contribute to that lucky streak. A quote from Coleman Cox seems appropriate: I am a great believer in Luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.
Dan Eccles on lead guitar, just rocked. He was so entertaining to watch as he grimaced and head-banged through the set, his long hair trying to keep up with the beat. His nimble fingers delicately found each chord on the slower folk songs, but slammed the power chords with a full-body gyration. He had a minimal amount of pedals, but made excellent use of them to alter the sound to match a pedal steel guitar, add some serious fuzz, or the emphasize the twang in his Telecaster.
One of the last rocking songs of the evening, “Lost in The Trees” is from 2011’s The High Country. They also played this song at Kilkenny Roots Festival in Ireland in early May, and are favorite performers there. In the song, you can hear a thumping bass of former member Dave Harding, hear Dan shred that Tele, and be amazed at how seemingly effortless Sean is at holding the steady, commanding beat on drums. Willy’s grim lyrics and monotone vocals on this song give it a punk edge.
Near the end, a fan threw a Winner’s Casino (an actual casino and a song from 2002’s Winnemucca) satin baseball-style jacket, up on stage as they played their final song. Willy sported a big grin as he played. They later posed for a photo with the jacket, all smiles. It was a great way to close the night and to find closure with this beloved band.
Like some of Willy Vlautin’s characters in his songs and stories, the band mates are probably going to be alright after the breakup.Willy, Sean Oldham, and Freddy Trujillo are already members of another band called The Delines. Willy is planning to spend some time working on his next book, too. Dan Eccles also plays in a band with Portland legend Fernando Viciconte.
We can’t go back, but we can look ahead. They’re still with us, just transformed and scattered into new entities.
Bitter and sweet.
Check out Richmond Fontaine’s website for merch and final tour dates here: http://richmondfontaine.com/
Check out Willy Vlautin’s author page here: http://willyvlautin.com/
Originally posted on Aplscruf’s Music Blog by Aplscruf, a.k.a. Lisa Knight