Richmond Fontaine is one of Portland’s most well-established and enduring Americana acts. Ironically, they’ve found greater fame overseas, particularly in the UK. I can only speculate that this is because the British are more comfortable with being drunk and depressive.
Their songs are stripped down, plaintive and heavy on the pedal steel. They are steeped in a distinctly American sound, one that is more western than southern (not unlike quieter Calexico with fewer horns). At times, they are sparse and literal to the point of being uncomfortable, but just when they take you to the brink, they bring you back. Playing live, they are not out-of-place following Two Cow Garage, as they did last time I saw them live in 2009.
Willy Vlautin is the lead singer, songwriter and the heart of Richmond Fontaine. He is also downright adorable and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Willy grew up in Reno, Nevada, which is a profoundly depressing place (read: shithole). In the 1990′s he moved to Portland to follow a girl and play in a real band. Over fifteen years later, Richmond Fontaine is still together and Willy has become an accomplished novelist, with his third book coming out this April.
His writing largely tells stories of people who live on the margins. He does most of his writing at the Portland Meadows racetrack, surrounded by people gambling and drinking before five pm. That may seem like an unconventional choice, until you remember where he came from. About Reno, he says: “I’ve always felt more comfortable around people who were having a hard time. So Reno eases my mind. One of the lucky breaks I’ve been given was being born in the town I was supposed to be born in.”
I had a hard time choosing only a couple songs to post here, so I went a little overboard, but I wanted to show the band’s range. If you like what you hear, consider picking up their latest release, We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like a River, which is some of their very best work and demonstrates their signature sound, fully realized (#7 on my best of 2009). My other favorite is Winnemucca, which is a lot more raw and ragged but better demonstrates their extremes. In any case, spend more than a little time getting to know these guys. It’s well worth it.