News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Sounds: Delta Rae
BY ANDREW LEAHEY
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
Last month, Delta Rae traveled to Los Angeles for a guest appearance on the Conan O’Brien show.
The band’s performance arrived toward the end of the broadcast. Conan sat at his desk, holding a vinyl copy of Delta Rae’s debut album, and gave the group a warm introduction. “Please welcome,” he began, “from Durham, North Carolina … Delta Rae!”
The camera panned to Brittany Hölljes, one of Delta Rae’s four vocalists. “Hold my hand, ooh baby; it’s a long way down to the bottom of the river,” she sang in a slow-smoked voice, sounding less like a 20-something North Carolina native and more like a mid-century, delta-born blues singer. Behind her, the rest of the band stomped and rattled a set of chains into an aluminum trash can, creating a sort of homemade, tribal drumbeat.
As the performance of “Bottom of the River” went on, other members began singing along, piling their voices into thick gospel harmonies while stalking around the stage like criminals, looking as angry and lost as the song’s own lyrics.
“Bottom of the River” ended as it always does, with a few measures of clattering, polyphonic percussion and one final wail from Brittany. Then, as the crowd exploded into applause, the six members of Delta Rae snapped out of character and smiled sheepishly, as though they didn’t know what had come over them during the performance.
“As soon as we hit the note of that song, we try to get into the right mindset,” Eric Hölljes said a few weeks later while traveling to a show in Memphis. “It helps do the song justice. For the most part, we’re pretty happy people, but sometimes you need to have a bit of anger.
“‘Bottom of the River’ allows us to let everything go for a second. It’s very cathartic.”
As children, Brittany and Eric moved from town to town with their parents, spending time in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and California. Years later, they’re still traveling from city to city, with a nearby performance in Richmond scheduled for Oct. 17 and another year’s worth of touring planned for 2013. Along with brother Ian, childhood friend Elizabeth Hopkins and a two-person rhythm section, they’ve become one of the South’s newest success stories, complete with a major-label record deal.
Part of the appeal is the band’s mix of Southern traditions. “Catch the Fire,” Delta Rae’s début album, fuses folk, country and pop into a polished hybrid. The songs are rustic in some places and cosmopolitan in others, but the real treat is the band’s singing. They harmonize beautifully, and during “Bottom of the River,” the background vocals add some atmosphere by mimicking a drum.
“Bobby McFerrin is an amazing vocalist,” Eric pointed out, “but he doesn’t stop at just singing. He creates sounds with his mouth and does percussion on his body. The human voice … people’s ears are just tuned to it, and you can do certain things to get a visceral reaction out of them.
“We try to keep that in mind. If you get too conventional, that’ll get boring and you’ll lose the audience. So we keep doing unconventional things, like singing the words “ha la la la la” during another one of our songs, ‘Is There Anyone Out There.’ It’s such a weird vowel to sing, and it doesn’t mean anything … but it moves people.”
What: Delta Rae
Where: The National, 708 E. Broad St., Richmond.
When: Wednesday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m.
Andrew Leahey is a god with a guitar, and a poet with a pen.