This is my sixth entry in this little series, but I realized something when I was deciding on which band to highlight. In all my previous entries, I focused on bands that had their heyday in the 90s.
This time, I decided to write about a current band, and that band is Delta Spirit.
*A special thanks to my friend Dan for introducing me to this band.
#6. Delta Spirit
In 2005, Jonathan Jameson (bass) and Brandon Young (drums) founded Delta Spirit in Southern California after their band Noise Ratchet disbanded. The rhythm section compadres added their friend Sean Walker (guitar) and added Matthew Vasquez (vocals, guitar) after seeing him busk in a park. The band also added multi-instrumentalist Kelly Winrich. Initially, the band hired him as a producer, but he joined in its first year.
Despite being from Long Beach, Delta Spirit’s style of music owes more to indie rock, folk and rhythm and blues than punk rock, emo or ska. I was fairly surprised to learn the band was from SoCal. I just assumed based on the name and sound that the band was from the South.
Delta Spirit took its name from “Uncle Red,” Jameson’s great uncle, who was a flight control operator near Birmingham, Alabama. Uncle Red also ran “Delta Spirit Taxidermy Station of North Central Alabama.”
Geographically confusing names and origins aside, the band strikes a nice balance between a vintage folk sound and a more contemporary rock sound. Other alt-country (I hate that term but am forced to use it because people have some sense of the type of music it describes) bands such as Wilco and Drive By Truckers have found a similar niche.
However, if, for some reason, some crazy person forced me to compare them to another band, I would say Delta Spirit is reminiscent of the Violent Femmes. Both bands rely mainly on acoustic instrumentation and also utilize various percussion instruments, horns, piano and harmonica. They also comfortably switch between a variety of musical styles and moods. Vasquez’s singing style bears at least a passing resemblance to Gordon Gano, the Violent Femme’s vocalist, but I think Vasquez probably has the better voice.
In 2006, the band released an EP, I think I’ve found It, on Monarchy Music. It gained enough attention to secure an opening gig on tour with Dr. Dog and Cold War Kids (who are bands you should also know).
The band followed that up with its first LP Ode to Sunshine, which was recorded independently in a mountain cabin. Rounder Records rereleased the album in 2008 with new artwork and a different version of the song “Streetwalker.”
You can tell the band recorded Ode in a secluded mountain retreat. Most of the album has a simple, soulful sound that is punctuated by several more standard rock tracks such as “Parade,” “Strange Vine” and “Streetwalker.”
It’s those simpler, soulful songs that really stand out, though. Songs such as “House Built for Two,” “People, Turn Around” and “Bleeding Bells” will stick in your head even with their somber subject matters.
In previous entries, I’ve underscored many of the lead singers’ vocals, but in the case of Delta Spirit, the lyrics far outweigh the impact of Vasquez’s vocals. That’s not to dismiss his vocals; it’s just that Ode contains some particularly powerful lyrics.
“House Built for Two” sounds like a nice enough slow song, one you might dance to with a significant other, until you start breaking it down. It’s about a divorce/separation that devastated a father and son:
“Our son is losing his mind/His drugs that he hides/You can see in his veins/The steps he’s needing to take/His back it might brake/We both need you here”
Even “Streetwalker,” one of the more upbeat sounding songs on Ode, is about human trafficking and sexual slavery and Americans’ relative indifference to it.
Delta Spirit followed Ode with History From Below. The band recorded it in 2009 after extensive touring and released it in 2010. History is noticeably more polished, but it strikes a familiar rock/folk balance.
The second track “Bushwick Blues” is one of the best songs on the album. It’s a boy-meets-girl song in the indie rock vein. It kind of sounds like a Whigs song, particularly Young’s drumming, which is a compliment because Whigs’ drummer Julian Dorio is one of the best in the business right now.
The best song on History, however, is “Vivian.” It’s similar to “House Built for Two” in its power. Vasquez wrote it about his grandmother who died shortly after his grandfather died. The song starts with a wailing harmonica and gives way to a simple chord progression. It tells a story that gives me goosebumps each time I listen to it—and I’ve listened to it upward of 100 times.
Let’s see a Ke$ha song do that.
The album ends strong with the acoustic “Ballad of Vitaly,” which was written about the story of Vitaly Kaloyev. Kaloyev is an architect who murdered air traffic controller Peter Nielsen in 2004.
Nielsen was the only air traffic controller on duty when Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937 collided with another aircraft over Germany in 2002. Kaloyev’s family was killed in the accident.
Delta Spirit is currently on tour: http://deltaspirit.net/tour