Amy Boone, Willy Vlautin and Cory Gray walk towards the harbor. After an eight hour drive in a cramped van from Amsterdam, they are happy to stretch their legs. The Delines will play the Nochtwache tonight, a club inside Nochtspeicher and just a few blocks off Hamburg’s notorious Reeperbahn. It's their only German show on their way from the Netherlands to Scandinavia.
It’s a Friday night in early May and the town is buzzing. The weekend’s mayhem on the streets is multiplied by this year’s festivities around the Hafengeburtstag, a celebration of the port’s 830th year of existence. The insane parade of ships, rides, food trucks, open-air stages, and masses of people sits in contrast to the melancholy country soul of The Delines.
The three members of the band, observing the frenzy from a spot high above the river Elbe, the quavering port, and Hamburg’s new concert hall the Elbphilharmonie, grab a beer—or in Amy’s case, a glass of red wine—and do a bit of chilling just a few moments before their gig while the rest of the band, drummer Sean Oldham and bassist Dave Little, prepare to soundcheck at the club.
Hamburg is more than just another gig on a long European tour, at least for one of The Delines’ cast: Boone’s grandmother is from Hamburg. The Delines’ singer, one of Portland’s most soulful and powerful yet fragile voices, feels a connection to Germany’s second largest city. Her loungy voice fills the room. “Let’s rock slow,” she announces, smiling while the band backs her up as a tight but discreet unit. They play a set of 11 songs mainly based around their 2019 album The Imperial. The intimate crowd is made up of Americana fans, faithful Richmond Fontaine followers, newcomers, music lovers, and a bunch of bluegrass and old-time aficionados, the latter primarily in attendance to see the Lonesome Ace Stringband from Toronto, who'll play the second half of the evening. Compared to their success in Great Britain and Scandinavia, The Delines are not widely known in Germany... yet.
In 2012, I interviewed Willy Vlautin at Portland Meadows for a German magazine. He seemed like the perfect protagonist for a Portland story. Vlautin moved to Portland in the mid ’90s, when the daily life was pretty simple: If you wanted to work, you worked. If you wanted to chill, you chilled. The “dream of the ’90s” was almost reality. With his band Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin was a regular in the Portland music scene, playing clubs like Belmont Inn (when they still had live music), Satyricon, La Luna, EJ’s, Berbati’s and Ash Street Saloon. Venues vanished today, leaving many behind (like me) with a stabbing pain in the heart. “Everything you love will disappear one day,” we agree. “But at least it was there for a while, and that is good,” Vlautin adds.
By 2012, Vlautin was an established writer with three published novels to go along his musical career. A few days after our meeting on the track, I visited him at his St. Johns office across from Slim’s. He’d just finished writing The Free and was a little edgy before its publication. I bought some Richmond Fontaine merch and showed him the car I drove every time I revisited Portland (a ’65 Rambler!). We went record shopping around the corner at Vinyl Resting Place while he told me about his new music project. “Some country soul with a female singer,” he revealed. It was the first time I heard about The Delines.
Their debut album Colfax came out in 2014 and was a promising underground success. A tour in Europe followed, new songs were written. Everything looked groovy and keen. Then out of nowhere tragedy struck just as they were about to produce their second album: Boone got hit by a car in a parking lot by an errant driver. Both her legs were smashed to pieces, with the fear of amputation lingering. Nearly a dozen operations were necessary, followed by a long hospital stay, rehab and two years in a wheelchair. The Delines were doomed, their story over before it even started.
“We were sitting on these songs and didn’t know what will happen,” Vlautin remembers. To keep their spirits alive, they were mixing and remixing the songs they had for years, waiting until Boone got better. The patience brought home the bacon with their second album The Imperial, which was released early this year.
Today, The Delines are happy to be able to keep on keepin’ on. Vlautin revels in his role in the background. In Richmond Fontaine, he was an involuntary bandleader, but in The Delines, the center stage belongs to Boone and her beautiful voice. They finish their set with “He Don’t Burn For Me” and “Colfax Avenue” as an encore. All their songs are full of stories and characters that become companions in your life: The sister who looks for her “little brother... who’s seen too much” (“Colfax Avenue”), or the woman, who after years of neglect, has to come to terms with the fact that her relationship is over—“all these couples who fall apart, like deserted cars alongside the road” (“He Don’t Burn For Me”). You think about them for a while.
The Delines, with their late-night songs, are back on the road and that is good. —Andreas Lampert
I Won’t Slip Up
Eddie & Polly
Waiting On The Blue
Holly The Hustle
That Old Haunted Place
Cheer Up Charley
Where are You Sonny?
A Room On The Tenth Floor
He Don’t Burn For Me