The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of: Delta Spirit

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:

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4 thoughts on “The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of: Delta Spirit

  1. Chip says:

    Love this band… Couldn’t agree with you more. Can’t wait to see the rest of the list.

  2. Jen_GGI says:

    bookmarked, my friends will love this

  3. Classic Nutmeg says:

    I’ve gotten to see Delta Spirit 3 times now and their music always reminds me of a certain time of my life.
    The first time they were playing with Dr. Dog at a town and hour away from where I live. It was my friends birthday and we went to see this band for it, but I had never listened to them before and sadly to say was in and out of the venue because my friends were having meltdowns. I remember coming in and really listening to one of the songs and thinking, “Whoa wait a minute. These guys are really good.”
    So when they came to my town two days later, I made sure to go to actually listen to the music. Suffice to say that it rocked my world and the house with the other two girls I lived with played Delta Spirit constantly. It was the first house I had lived at where I felt really comfortable to be me and got to experience a lot of things. So when I listen to them now, I kind of reminisce over that period of time in my life.
    The last time I saw them, my ex roommate (from the house I was talking about) had moved to Pasadena in LA and said they were playing down there. A large group of us Fresno, CA people drove the four hours south to go see them. By this time I knew the music very well and to get to see them play in a big venue packed out to the max was incredible. My friends and I were in the thick of it, body’s crushing against each other and every now and then someone would grab your hand or sling an arm around your waist during a certain song while you swayed back and forth. It was a top night.

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