Richmond Fontaine, Water Rats London

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The Independent Culture

Richmond Fontaine are standing in the bar before the show, amiably drinking with their new audience; the few who recognise them, anyway. After a dozen years of anonymous struggle, their fourth album Post to Wire is being justly praised in the UK as a classic of Americana, with Album of the Month and five-star reviews, and this Oregon-based band have had to shoehorn in this tour-ending extra show.

Richmond Fontaine are standing in the bar before the show, amiably drinking with their new audience; the few who recognise them, anyway. After a dozen years of anonymous struggle, their fourth album Post to Wire is being justly praised in the UK as a classic of Americana, with Album of the Month and five-star reviews, and this Oregon-based band have had to shoehorn in this tour-ending extra show.

They deserve the success, though Willy Vlautin's lyrics suggest the state is strange to them. Because Post to Wire is not Americana in a genre sense, but in its intimate yet panoramic view of the motels, parking lots, highways and bars where the country's losers go to drown their sorrows. Vlautin's heroes include Raymond Carver and The Replacements, and his songs combine the two. And after growing up in the deadbeat gambling hole of Reno, Nevada, this is no literary pose. His songs are often based on his life, or his friends'.

Watching his sad-eyed face in the bar, he has the air of someone expecting the worst, because he has seen it so often. On stage, Vlautin is just the same: inward-looking, eyes downcast, perhaps a little shy. Though not a persona, this suits the songs he sings, which are so often about loneliness and dejection. Typically his band open with "Willamette", about a boy abandoned by his family, with nowhere good to go. "15 You're No Kid" watches another boy walk over the edge: stealing money from his Mum for records, a shotgun and a trip to Mexico, with a girlfriend whose pulse soon stops.

As Paul Brainard's pedal-steel gives the band's barroom rock a lachrymose country air, Vlautin leaves his luckless hero looking at a sea he's never seen before, a sliver of beauty salvaged from the doom. Most of the hope offered here is of that order. The most optimistic title is "Barely Losing".

In truth, there is something missing from Richmond Fontaine tonight. Like all the best bands who describe desolate moments humanely, they are usually uplifting, purging depression rather than creating it.

When I saw them earlier in the tour, they transported me in just that way. This time, though, they seem a little too pensive, as if their own songs have sucked the spark from them. Only after the emotional dead-end of "Hallway" (about a friend of Vlautin's too lost to leave his room) do the band start to punch their way back into life.

A fuzzed-up "Montgomery Park" is followed by a clattering cover of The Band's "The State I'm In", while "Trembling" sees them flash into overdrive, Vlautin nodding happily as his guitar scratches out his lyrics' despair. "Polaroid" even leaves us with a closing-time vignette of momentary optimism, as Vlautin admits that, "Not everyone lives their lives alone. Not everyone gives up or is beaten or robbed or stoned. Not everyone...".

Just most of us, he leaves unsaid. Even when they miss the mark, Richmond Fontaine offer rough comforts like that.

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