Delta Rae are a band that is laced with doses of inspirational hope—hope for the soul and future of music the way the intelligent listener pictures it. In a world of compositional ignorance and the celebration of dirty, sample-happy laundry, Delta Rae are a clean, bright beacon for the fan thirsting for emotional salvation.
I first caught Delta Rae at Rock Ridge Music’s Hotel Carolina in Philadelphia, and right from the start I knew there was something completely different about this band. Steeped in the close-knit family tradition of sharp-edged pop and rural, back-porch gospel, Delta Rae proceeded to weave the most intricate tapestry of original sound this side of the Mississippi. The band tackled subjects ranging from lost and haunting love to the disillusion of 40-hour work weeks in dead-end jobs. Their music is American empathy through and through and it’s a spiritual presentation that leaves the listener departing the venue with a bit more dignity than when they first staggered through the door.
This is the success story of a band that literally walked into music biz legend Seymour Stein’s office in Rockefeller Center and changed everyone’s day.
The story goes that they were introduced by an intricate connection that somehow put Delta Rae smack in the office of one of the music industry’s most important players. Now, Seymour Stein isn’t just some talent seeker. He is the VP of Warner Bros. Records, and his multi-decade career includes the founding of Sire Records (the label the band is now on) as well as being responsible for signing everyone from The Ramones to Madonna. Stein’s pedigree would weigh heavy on any band that made it to his office but even though they were probably quite nervous, Delta Rae muscled up, belting about 20 seconds of their song “Hey! Hey! Hey!” before Stein stopped them, called in some associates and, as their bio states, said, “You gotta hear these people! They sound so beautiful!” Stein signed the band himself four months later.
Delta Rae are a family run affair, consisting of siblings Brittany, Ian, and Eric Hölljes, as well as childhood friend Elizabeth Hopkins and the able rhythm assist of Mike McKee and Grant Emerson. As I read their press material and listened to their music, it struck me that finally, this was something that has been sorely lacking from the entertainment industry for a long time. Delta Rae are sincerity. Sincerity in their personal lives, their creative direction, and a humble presentation that separates them from the dysfunctional music biz nonsense we see too much of. This is a band that sounds beautiful as a unit and just as stunning when each singer showcases his or her specific vocal talents in the solo spotlight. Their motto of “let the best song win” takes the fight out of who does what and when.
Carry The Fire is a monumental collection of influences and experiences that come from the very essence of each member of Delta Rae. This isn’t some label fabrication based on trend predictions or marketing gimmicks—it’s the core of everyday American life through the eyes of our brothers and sisters. Hailing from the rural sector of Durham, North Carolina, Delta Rae are the lynch pin that holds the current American music experience together.
The show at the Bowery Ballroom was packed with the most interesting variety of people I’ve seen in a quite some time. A veritable mix of everything under the sun packed this legendary New York room. Older folk, rich Manhattan kids, hipsters, a motley sub-mix of Jersey Shore types, preppies, and hillbillies. This eclectic group was all under one roof for one specific reason. That reason was Delta Rae and the celebration of their new disc on Warner Bros. (Sire) Records.
The band came out and kicked straight into the Smoky Mountain vocal chorus of “Morning Comes.” The modulating vocal harmony of the four singers was an immediately striking introduction before receding to allow vocalist/pianist Eric Hölljes to lead things off with his Marc Cohn storytelling style. Vocal harmonies were punctuated by sharp hand claps before the group kicked into their “Black Crows meets Red Wanting Blue” Americana blend. Delta Rae are a lethal chorus machine and this song featured several that dodged between interesting bridges and dynamic interludes of back-porch soul. “Morning Comes” goes out with the solo color of Eric Hölljes, who finishes this radio-friendly hit off with an intimate, home grown tone.
Another highlight both live and on the new CD is “Bottom Of The River,” an animalistic, hallelujah-infested composition that could be best described as “Chain Gang Stomp.” This is strange, blue-eyed, blonde-haired North Carolina gospel that combines a meltdown of blind faith with the twisted folklore of a tent revival meeting. Hypnotic and haunting percussions explode, hammered out by all members with hands, drums, and dusty, wooden floorboards that drew the crowd in close as the four singers weaved layers of spooky spirituality down into the black and icy river bottom they extol. The stand up bass work of Grant Emerson pushes this beast from the back as Mike McKee braces the undercarriage of the songs staggered vocal attack. This is probably one of the most unlikely hits you will ever hear, but a hit it is, and the crowd went berserk.
Other highlights of the night were the connective interaction on “Hey! Hey! Hey!” The band came off the stage to perform in the middle of the crowded room. This is a technique they’ve used in the past and the effect was electric. The band’s Southern inflections bounced with a Nashville sensibility that had the crowd clapping and dancing right in amongst them. If it was anyone but this band, I would have sensed “hokey” right away, but they’ve used this since the early days where they had to bypass acoustically strange venues and poor sound systems. This method conveyed up-close emotional oneness with the crowd and there should be more of this genuine interaction in music.
Another nod goes to the dirty, straight ahead rock and roll of “Fire.” Fronted by the mysterious powerhouse Brittany Hölljes, this song is yet another unique side of a band that dodges in unpredictable directions. Brittany has all the emotional power of Kate Bush as she wails into the choruses of this dark and gritty jewel. The band pushes steady as co-front singer Elizabeth Hopkins firms the melody and adds brilliant shimmer to the overall sound.
The secret weapon of the night was singer Ian Hölljes, who unleashed a surprising, extroverted side on “Is There Anyone Out There?” Ian’s strong, mid-toned voice brings another smart dimension to a band with four singers of equal worth. Brittany and Elizabeth guide this radio-friendly song straight into the solid path of Eric, Mike, and Grant’s musical expertise.
Encores included “Darling If,” a song that featured the dark and dramatic flair of Elizabeth Hopkins. Her amazing power and tone leaves me completely understanding why she is in this band. She is the yin to Brittany’s yang and the two are complementary forces that had the crowd dancing up a storm. Maybe I come from an area where everyone is just too cool to react, but even the guys were pulling some Kevin Bacon and Patrick Swayze moves on the floor this night.
Mind-blowing talent born from the American dream is what this band bleeds. They represent the reality that honest music can still succeed on its own terms outside of a grass root structure. That realization puts the music business back into the good graces of fledgling songwriters that have hopes and aspirations too big to deny here in America. For more on Delta Rae and Carry The Fire, head over to deltarae.com.