Willy Vlautin @ Whelan’s 29th January 2018

Willy Vlautin has performed at Whelan’s on numerous occasions, whether with his band Richmond Fontaine or as part of different projects, including his current band The Delines. 

This evening’s appearance takes on a somewhat different format with Vlautin promoting his fifth novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, which has recently been published to very positive reviewsHowever, far from merely a book reading, this appearance offers so much more than merely a marketing event for the book’s release. In fact, Vlautin only reads two short passages from the novel which documents the ambitions of farm hand Horace Hopper, half Irish and half Paiute Indian, to pursue a career as a professional boxer.

 It’s no surprise that the event is a sell-out, given the fanbase he has developed on these islands as a songwriter, musician and author. Vlautin's first novel The Motel Life ended up as a feature film in 2013 starring Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff and the film based on his third book, Lean On Pete will be screened during The Dublin Film in late February.

The format tonight includes Vlautin performing songs and instrumentals, accompanied by Cork maestro David Murphy on pedal steel guitar. In addition to reciting the two passages from the novel, Willy is interviewed on stage by Hot Press commissioning editor, Roisin Dwyer.

The show commences with a track from the instrumental soundtrack - included with the first print edition of the book - titled Horace and The Trophy and is followed by Wake Up Ray and Whitey & Me from Richmond Fontaine’s memorable swansong album, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To. The book’s title, also a track featured on the same album, follows. Vlautin cites the inspiration for material on that album being friends from his teenage years still living at home with their mothers and who never moved on despite being in their 40’s ("Guys I cut the ties with but always end up hooking up with again!").

The stripped-down versions, with only Vlautin’s vocal and acoustic guitar, together with Murphy’s quite stunning pedal steel playing, capture the atmosphere of the songs to perfection and it’s noteworthy that Vlautin comments later in the evening how proud he and his band members are of their final album. When Roisin Dwyer enquires why the band split up he simply replies "we got out while we were ahead and before any of us had to leave."

Having invested three and a half years in writing the novel, which initially contained over six hundred pages, he jokes about having to edit it to just over three hundred pages, a process that resulted in casually discarding eighteen months work in a short period of time. Most impressive throughout the interview is Vlautin’s naked honesty, delivered humorously and attributing his story telling skills and selection of characters ("why can’t the janitor or the car park attendant or the nurse be the main character in a novel") to escapism and his vivid imagination, describing himself as a complete dreamer since childhood.

A follower of professional boxing since his childhood and an avid reader of The Ring magazine, he speaks comically of his near obsession with Welch welterweight, boxer Colin Jones, who fought the undefeated Detroit ‘Ice Man’ Milton Mc Crory in Vlautin’s home town Reno in 1983. Jones was notorious for his gruelling lifestyle pattern of running five miles to and from his work as a gravedigger, before going training in the evenings. Vlautin admits tongue in cheek of "wanting to be Colin Jones, without the running and digging or maybe a James Bond or Sam Shephard just cruising in paradise, wearing shades and looking cool." Instead and in reality, a lot of time was spent in his room listening to Yes, Rush and Japan records and dreaming of starting a band.

Before continuing with a couple of songs written for his current band (The Delineshe recounts how he would listen in awe to Amy Boone singing in the dressing room before she went on stage as a backing vocalist on tour with Richmond Fontaine. Having spent seven months writing songs for her, he eventually convinced her to try them out and to take centre stage as lead singer. Asked if he was comfortable taking a background position with this band he immediately responds "playing in a band where I’m not nervous as shit going on stage is a dream come true!"

On that note he candidly recounts tackling his stage nerves by performing tanked up on beer up to the age of 34. On one occasion he was practically unable to function on stage after a particular bender. Discovering the next morning that one punter had driven sixteen hours to the gig and slept in his car, unable to afford the price of a room, his shame was the wake-up call to get his act together. He also explains how Amy Boone was involved in a bizarre accident two years ago having been struck by an out of control car while walking in a car park, suffering horrific injuries. Her recovery continues to the extent that she is still attempting to walk again, but Vlautin expressed the sincere hope that she would be able to perform material from their forthcoming album on stage later in the year. The Oil Rigs At Night and Colfax Avenue follow, both stand out tracks from The Delines debut album.

Material from earlier Richmond Fontaine albums are also performed. The Boyfriends from We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River and Northline from Winnemucca were regular inclusions in their setlists over the years and they both work equally well stripped back. Vlautin also dedicates "our only poppy song" Post To Wire from the album of the same name to the memory of the late George Byrne "the first mad red-haired Irishman we encountered in Kilkenny on our first trip to Ireland in 2004."

Noting how much he was in awe David Murphy’s pedal steel playing, the atmosphere it created and his fascination with the instrument from his early career he jokes "I love great playing like David’s and not the wild honky tonk playing by some of the wild men at home", before the pair launch into a guitar and pedal steel instrumental duet. The evening ends with A Night In The City and Lets Hit One More Place, two more superb tracks from Richmond Fontaine’s final album.

The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar had set up a stall at the merchandise desk and given that the novel was selling like hotcakes Vlautin must have spent at least an hour meeting, greeting and signing copies at the front of the stage.

What a pleasure to observe the genuine warmth and entertainment generated by Vlautin to every person in the room and an endorsement that sometimes the really good guys do get their just rewards in the end.

Review and pictures by Declan Culliton