Richmond Fontaine’s slow-growth adventure

Jul 11, 2006 | Reviews, Series 19

By JOSEF WOODARD
NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

For hopeless music fans, there’s nothing quite like the warming sensation of discovering and falling in love with a new band, especially one which has been slowly and steadily building its reputation over years, rather than being fueled by hype and overnight-sensation dynamics. The remarkable Portland-based band known as Richmond Fontaine, the headliners in Saturday night’s edition of the “Sings Like Hell” series at the Lobero, is such an act.

Built around the unusually fine tale-spinning of singer-songwriter Willie Vlautin, the band’s languid yet seductively loping country-rock sound may be an acquired taste. But it’s pure gold for listeners, like this one, with a pronounced taste for such disparate cultural guideposts as alt country, Townes Van Zandt’s melancholic profundity, the short stories of Raymond Carver, and the lingering memories of L.A. punk/roots music and the Minneapolis post-punk of the Replacements and Husker Du. Add a touch of Wilco and you’ve got a general picture of the band’s place in the cultural world.

The band has been around since 1998, generating its fan base the old-fashioned way, mile by mile, gig by gig. Its public profile was notably raised with the release of the great 2004 album “Post to Wire,” from which much of Saturday’s set list was drawn. More recently, Vlautin allowed his more brooding folkie side to emerge on the spare and moving song set “The Fitzgerald.”

The Fitzgerald is an actual hotel-casino in Reno, Vlautin’s hometown, and it’s a recurring location and metaphor in his songs, including “Barely Losing,” a highlight of the Lobero show and one of the few “love songs” he fessed up to writing. Another love song was the new, as-yet unrecorded “Four Walls,” about escaping the ravages of the outside world with a lover in a room (“could you please keep out all stories ’bout overseas?”).

“Post to Wire” is a deceptively bouncy rocker, about long-distance romantic second-guessing, and “Alison Johnson” is a lovely dirge of a ballad, a paean to a would-be lover rummaging stubbornly around in the memory banks. Vlautin has a romantic attraction to humble, less-traveled and tourism-minded outposts in the western landscape, such as “Winnemucca,” the title and subject of another song. “Northline” and “Western Skyline” are also brusque beauties as songs, also from the 2002 album “Winnemucca.”

Although Vlautin is clearly the central creative force in this band, the four-piece also has a palpable group identity. Vlautin’s hypnotic word work and understated drawl in his voice is nicely colored by a bass-drums rhythm section — Dave Harding and Sean Oldham, respectively — which understands how to parse the subtle differences between rock and country grooves. Guitarist Dan Eckles summons up effective use of shivering vibrato and sometimes gets a quasi-steel guitar sound out of his volume pedal.

Taking a brief detour away from Vlautin’s inspiring original songbook, the band served up a fairly faithful rendition of the X song “New World.” Vlautin mentioned that the band was one of his early influences, and that their songs were political in ways his weren’t. But his sagas of losers and soggy dreamers get to a different political realm, the politics of fragile emotions, tough love and the human dramedy.

Unfortunately, the dark side of Saturday’s show was the opener, the unplugged punk act known by his moniker Hamell on Trial. It’s not at all that the hyperactive activist spoken word maniac was offensive, despite his best efforts (i.e. pretending to urinate on the empty seats of late-comers in the front row, whom he called arrogant in their absence).

The problem was a bad case of mismatched double-billing. His extra-salty assaults were a distracting polar opposite of Richmond Fontaine’s elegant porch-side poetry.

Hamell on Trial, who entertains in high (take that adjective as you wish) style, has played SOhO and the Arlington, opening for his label’s owner (and his sometime producer), Ani DiFranco. He’s like a rude, but funny and somehow wise houseguest, who trashes the place but gets away with it because of his rapid-flowing wit and direct access to truths.

Richmond Fontaine takes a slower, deeper and more twang-flavored route to its own fount of human truths.