Last updated on May 13th, 2023 at 07:51 am
I was first introduced to the music of Delta Rae about a decade ago by some relatives that live in the band’s hometown of Durham, North Carolina. Straddling somewhere at the intersection of CSNY, the Highwomen, and Sister Hazel, this six-piece outfit brings soaring harmonies and earnest songwriting to the country-slash-Americana scene.
On Wednesday night this week, they delivered a stunning performance to a sold-out show at Saint Paul’s Turf Club, one of my favorite venues in town. My relatives promised me that I’d be thoroughly entertained, and that turned out to be an understatement.
It seems like the band is visiting us here in Minnesota about every year or two, paying visits to 7th Street Entry, the Varsity, the First Avenue Main Room, and the Fine Line. When Music in Minnesota last reviewed them, it was for the 2018 Basilica Block Party, and while I wasn’t at that show, I was glad to be catching them this time in an intimate setting like the Turf.
That intimacy proved explosive when Delta Rae burst out of the gate with “Chasing Twisters,” a song that opens with hypnotizing percussion as an old-West whistle echoes over sparse piano chords. As Liz Hopkins climbed the riser at the front of the stage to belt out the lyrics, you could feel her twister-like movements whipping the crowd into their own canyon of energy. The band instantly connected with the audience, and they were clearly grateful to have sold out a venue on a Wednesday evening.
While Hopkins took the spotlight on the first song, vocalist Brittany Holljes hung back to play on some of the various percussion instruments the band had set up in the center of the stage. But Brittany would step forward for lead vocals on the second song, and before long, the crowd saw her also climbing the riser to dance and sing her way through various numbers.
I should mention that Brittany’s brothers, Eric (keys) and Ian (guitar), are also in the band. During any given song, lead vocals could be handled by Hopkins or any of the three Holljes siblings. I was astonished at their ability to rain melodic hooks down on the crowd with two-, three-, or even four-part harmonies.
While I was expecting those four vocalists, Mike McKee on drums and Grant Emerson on bass, we were also treated to a seventh musician, Ellen Angelico, who apparently is touring with the group on electric guitar. The Nashville musician added subtle textures and tasty licks to each song, fitting right in with McKee and Emerson by laying a foundation for the four singers to shine.
But Hopkins et al. weren’t selfish with the spotlight. McKee and Emerson both took a turn with auxiliary percussion during the gospel-like “Bottom of the River,” while Angelico and Emerson each got to mount the riser for their respective solos during the epic cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”
Some live music fans might even complain that the sound was too perfect, but I’m always impressed with near-flawless performances like what Delta Rae delivered. I figure that’s what playing hundreds of shows a year for over a decade will give you as an artist. Besides, this isn’t a punk or jam band; these musicians deliver inspirational lyrics via ear candy, and hearing that in a small club is bliss for fans like me.
There were plenty of imperfect moments between songs, with each of the Holljes brothers taking time to introduce the concept of a song or explain their gratitude for becoming an independent band in 2019. Brittany delivered a lengthy speech about the difficulties of the last few years and how it’s OK to give yourself permission to rest when you’re tired from all of life’s trials. None of these moments were as polished as the music, but they still held the crowd’s attention: talented folks getting honest with their fans.
There’s a lot of “real” in Delta Rae’s music, exemplified by “If I Loved You,” which the crowd happily sang along to when prompted by the band. The genuine lyrics in that song provide the Yin to the Yang of “Long and Happy Life,” which unfortunately wasn’t in the setlist. (Of course, the best artists know to leave you wanting more.)
The opening act was Thunder Lily, a project of Ohio’s Steven Mullan. With just a lone acoustic guitar, he fingerpicked his way through fairly mellow, pensive numbers that likely would have been better suited to a coffee house. But he transfixed several audience members with his vocal range, echoing James Taylor or Van Morrison.
Joined by his wife for several songs, the duo scored points with animal lovers by promising their dog would get a treat for every new Instagram follow. Several pieces called back to Woody Guthrie folk, and the highlight was “Second Chances,” which included a cameo from Eric Holljes on keys and vocals.
Speaking of chances, this show was probably my third or fourth opportunity to see Delta Rae live, and I’m glad I finally jumped on one. They closed the night with “Dance In The Graveyards,” thereby bookending their performance with two of my favorite songs. As they effortlessly melded Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” into the encore, I reflected on a theme of the night: nobody knows what happens when we move on from this life, so we might as well dance while we’re here.
Music from groups like Delta Rae makes that a heck of a lot easier to do.