One of the best sets at this year’s Truck Festival was Richmond Fontaine’s acoustic performance on the Saturday; front-man Willy Vlautin and guitarist Dan Eccles strode onto the Main Stage and, despite being dwarfing physically as a lonesome duo on the festival’s largest stage, Willy’s vivid storytelling and Dan’s mesmerising guitar skills ensnared the doting crowd. Having reviewed their new album The High Country for the405, it was with great anticipation that I went along to see the whole band perform at The Bullingdon Arms on Cowley Road.
Entering the backroom at The Bully, it quickly became apparent that Richmond Fontaine isn’t going to be attracting the same audiences who will attend, let’s say, Bombay Bicycle Club’s gig next month at the o2 Academy Oxford. No one here is younger than 25! The venue is mainly filled with eager, if slightly overweight, 40-somethings. But, having grown up going to Mercury Rev gigs with my dad though, this is hardly alien territory. The band come out almost as a mirror image of the crowd; somewhat grizzled, bearded and on the portlier side. This isn’t fashionable music, there won’t be any 14 year old girls going ape-shit at the front, screaming and attempting a chance grab at Willy’s groin. Thankfully, Richmond Fontaine have amassed a crowd who are anticipating literate country-rock instead of zeitgeist alt.synth-wave.
The band performed the entire of their new release The High Country from start to finish, and with the album being more of a story than a traditional collection of songs, its merits a full showing. Deborah Kelly (from The Damnations) joins the band, providing the narrative of The High Country’s sorry female character, beginning with a gloomy monologue about wasted individual potential and living an unhappy life backed only by Willy’s acoustic guitar and Dan’s gloriously sinister swells. If you aren’t familiar with Willy Vlautin as a writer then you should know that his songs and books aren’t exactly cheerful. His written work if full of distressing set-pieces, characters who suffer stressful trials in rural America and his debut novel – The Motel Life – is being made into a film starring Dakota Fanning.
With the album being made up of 50% “proper” songs and 50% plot pieces or instrumental atmospherics, the actual songs such as ‘The Chainsaw Sea’, ‘Lost In The Trees’ and ‘On A Spree’ are the ones which go down the best with the enthusiastic crowd, some of which are now jumping around like teenagers. Throughout the album are interludes which comprise only of Willy’s acoustic guitar, his voice singing wordless melodies drenched in reverb and Dan Eccles providing either rumbling distortion, country swells or even a bit of cheeky slide guitar. On the record, these tracks are merely ambient filler, but live the tracks take on a glorious, stripped back Sigur Ros feel. ‘Driving Back To The Chainsaw Sea’ is a conceptual track on the album where a character listens to some stereotypically awful country rock on the radio, cursing how bad it is, but when Richmond Fontaine perform them live tonight, hilariously, they sound brilliant, with the whole crowd drunkenly swaying along to “Timber Tom”.
After performing the whole album, Richmond Fontaine go off for a beer and come back to play a second set of songs from their back catalogue. Talk about value for money! They go on for another 45 minutes playing tracks from albums such as 2009’s We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River and 2007’s Thirteen Cities. The crowd, despite being less enthralled by the older material, continue to give Willy there full attention, listening intently to his often twisted lyricism, and admiring at Dan’s superlative guitar playing. Richmond Fontaine sound like a band who have rediscovered their form and are keen to share the The High Country experience to anybody willing to listen.
Photography by Vinnie Mo