- Alasdair Roberts
My first steps into the spectacular edifice that is Ullet Road Unitarian Church are accompanied not by the silence I had expected, but by the strains of the church’s William Hill organ (built 1869, and a listed instrument in its own right). The sound from the grand old instrument seems to reverberate in every finely carved nook and cranny of nave and apse, an impromptu prologue to the latest concert in the Unitarian Church’s toe-dipping into the world of contemporary music. Promoted by Nothingville Music, who are seemingly making a habit of presenting quality musicians in unusual settings, tonight’s show is headlined by THE DELINES. The band are an offshoot of long-running Americana outfit Richmond Fontaine, now fronted by singer Amy Boone. It’s change of tack which bassist Freddie Trujillo has described as an attempt to fuse the country stylings of Sammi Smith (Help Me Make It Through The Night) with the soul groove of Booker T & The MG’s. It’s an attempt that has proved hugely successful if the critical acclaim afforded their first two albums, 2014’s Colfax and this year’s The Imperial, is anything to go by. The organ is being played by The Delines’ keyboard player Cory Gray, who “just couldn’t pass up this opportunity”. It’s his enthusiasm for the instrument that results in a last-minute re-jig of the setlist.
The five-year hiatus between albums was an enforced one; singer Boone recovering from a car crash in 2016, the effects of which are still with her as she makes her way around backstage with the aid of a walking stick.
Support comes from ALASDAIR ROBERTS, whose plaintive vocal style takes us immediately to the Highlands and islands of his native Scotland. His voice is redolent of peat fires and whisky, his storytelling sounds ageless, but his first song is the outward looking Europe. Crisp, agile fingerpicking adorns his folk melodies. Tales of love and separation are easily transposed from their Celtic origins to more contemporary settings. The pews are filling up quickly now; Roberts’ set is warmly received by those who have wisely decided not to spend too long sequestered in the annexed bar.
Alongside the above mentioned members, The Delines’ line-up is completed by drummer Sean Oldham and guitarist and songwriter Willy Vlautin. Between them, this band have clocked up the miles and cut their teeth playing just about every genre going. From straight up country to LA punk, you name it. In Vlautin, they have a songwriter who is able to distil the lives of the characters from his novels (five published to date, all highly acclaimed) into the three-minute vignettes of American life caught up in his songs.
They kick things off with the title track from The Imperial. I don’t know if Vlautin wrote these songs with Boone’s accident subconsciously in mind, but when she sings the opening line “All those scars, what did they do to you”, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is some form of catharsis for her.
It’s immediately obvious that the soul tag they have earned is well deserved, there’s a Dusty In Memphis-meets-Brill Building cool to Boone’s delivery and to the arrangements, underscored by the rest of the band’s soulful “ooohs” and “aaahs”. There’s also a distinctive guitar and piano motif pushing the song to its conclusion. They jump straight back to Colfax for a beautifully heartfelt I Won’t Slip Up, with swirling organ, lovely melody, an uplifting melancholy already pervading the air. It’s a wonderful start and from here they never look back, covering most of the new album alongside a scattering of older material. The band may be visually dwarfed by their vaulted surroundings, but their sound fills the immense space. Not with loudness, but with a pared back clarity. It uses the superb acoustics to full advantage.
Keyboardist Gray proves to be an equally great horn player. His trumpet layering, gritty Stax riffs, smoothly orchestrated West Coast pop, or a hint of Mariachi which adds so much colour to the overall palette and on the gorgeous slow burn of Where Are You Sonny? – the kind of joyful chord progressions that build and build towards a euphoric climax.
The Delines are never afraid to take their time over a song, to reach out for the music, allowing Boone’s compelling voice the time and space to work its magic; almost spoken, almost whispered at times, she projects both vulnerability and defiance in equal measure. Jazzy, bluesy little guitar and keyboard licks flicker at the edges of her voice. Trujillo’s bass bubbles groovily beneath the surface, Oldham’s drums impeccably unfussy, totally on the money.
The rapport with the audience is tangible. Boone acknowledges the “first church to let women preach”, as well as tipping her hat to her own recovery: “It’s so great to be back on stage with the coolest dudes in the world.” There are some great asides throughout the night, as she laughingly tries her best not to swear in church. “This one’s for Paul,” Boone announces, doffing her cap to the night’s promoter. “He asked us to play this. Thanks for putting us on in this beautiful place.” They go on to deliver a poignant The Oil Rigs At Night, which shimmers evocatively in the pin-drop silence, its protagonist gazing out at the lights in the Gulf where her man is working as she plots her escape. Pop, soul, country, gospel – call it anything you want, this is pure class. Come the end the congregation are on their feet, applauding rapturously and calling for more.
The band duly oblige, and Cory Gray disappears into the organ loft to add an audacious on-the-fly flourish to a sublime I’m Just A Ghost, truly grasping that opportunity with both hands. The growling sustain at the end of the song heads off the deep bass register, both band and audience smilingly holding their breath wondering how long he can keep this going.
Now it’s the applause that’s sustained. Gray returns and the band play us out with two more gems, two more nuggets about lives lived on the wrong side of the American tracks. The band finish with the redemptive and achingly beautiful Let’s Be Us Again, the circle complete as Boone sings “I can’t wait to be, like I used to be”.
We float back out into the cold January night. We’re warmed from within with a glow known to each visiting preacher of this chapel felt when they deliver their Sunday sermons.