Willy Vlautin’s luck is fast looking up. It’s doubtful the singer-songwriter would agree—bitterness and regret have never figured in his personal scheme of things—but it’s about time. Ten whole years and five albums into their career, Portland, Oregon’s Richmond Fontaine are now being acknowledged—alongside Wilco and the recently revived American Music Club—as the standard bearers of a deeply empathetic, casually confessional strain of contemporary Americana. Latest album Post To Wire paints an emotionally blasted landscape inhabited by the lost, the luckless, the bruised, bewildered and the plain broken, many of them inspired by Vlautin’s own dark past spent hanging around the roughneck bars and low-rent casinos of his home town, Reno. His songs are postcards from the edges of experience and the bittersweet vignettes they describe—which have more than a touch of the Raymond Carver to them—neither pity nor ennoble their subjects but simply tell their stories, straight. Life, Willy Vlautin knows, comes with no guarantee. There’s little else to do but get right on with it.
It’s this sleeves-rolled forthrightness which makes Richmond Fontaine so engaging live. With his neat jeans, blue workman’s shirt and slightly shy manner, Vlautin makes an unlikely star, but the sell-out crowd make it clear he’s their hero. “I love you, Willy!” cries a (male) disciple, while down the front another plays enthusiastic air guitar to almost every tune. The band (with touring guitarist Dan Eccles standing in for pedal-steel recording champ Paul Brainard) range across familiar enough territory—the highly-charged bar blues/boogie of Vlautin’s beloved Blasters (Dave Alvin gets a name-check tonight), Springsteen’s impassioned urban’n’western, the righteous, literate punk of Hüsker Dü, Uncle Tupelo’s bourbon-soaked epiphanies—but Richmond Fontaine are adding to the canon, not milking it dry.
They open with “Out Of State” from the recently re-issued Winnemucca LP—a sweetly urgent snapshot of the peculiar emotional limbo that so often accompanies physical escape—and then dip into the languid swing of “Barely Losing”, its title as neat a summary of Vlautin’s life philosophy as you could hope for. Picking highlights from the set is nigh on impossible, but the twanging “Northline” (in which Vlautin makes the phrase “her bloodshot blue eyes” sound like love’s most tender elegy), a roisterous, full-tilt “Montgomery Park”, the malevolent “Hallway” and a divinely sombre “Allison Johnson” linger well after lights up. Floor-stamping demands for an encore see them producing “1968”, “Winner’s Casino” and, finally, “Polaroid”, in which Eccles’ lugubrious guitar and Vlautin’s keening vocal belie his lyrical optimism. “Not everyone lives their life alone, ” he reminds us, “not everyone gives up or is beaten or robbed or always stoned.” It’s that nudge toward hopefulness we all sometimes need. Richmond Fontaine are one of the few bands who can convincingly supply it.