“When the lights they go out…we congregate”
- Rocco DeLuca – “Congregate”
One of the joys about writing for American Roots Sessions is our ability to focus on some of the day’s best storytellers who may occupy an area that is well off the beaten path. The focus is primarily on presenting music in its most elemental form, allowing the lyrics and the songs to speak in the most direct, intimate way possible. This has provided ARS the luxury of spotlighting artists whose feelings and vulnerabilities resonate on almost primal levels in spite of the lack of production and instrumentation.
There may be other artists who personify the philosophy that’s at the core of American Roots Sessions better than Rocco Deluca…but there probably aren’t many. Deluca tried the high-profile alt-rock front man thing in the latter half of the last decade (see: the documentary I Trust You To Kill Me for proof), only to have spent the better of the last half-dozen years continually deconstructing his sound both on stage and on the three albums he’s put out with the help of friend/mentor/guru Daniel Lanois. His 2009 album Mercy still featured backing band The Burden, though it began a trend of shying away from a more mainstream rock sound and toward a more seductive, trancelike sound. That trend continued with 2012’s “solo debut” Drugs ‘N Hymns and 2014’s stellar self-titled release, the recording of which essentially consisted of Deluca and friends in his home studio working through glorified jam sessions.
Accompanied solely by a lap steel (and a well-travelled Danelectro electric guitar on the set’s closing song, “Nightingale”) and one of those aforementioned friends, Jonathan Wright, on drums, Deluca brought the tour for his latest album to the Berklee College of Music’s Red Room at Café 939 on a recent Thursday evening. Deluca took the stage at the 200-capacity venue promptly at 9pm, his chest-length thin braids, red-sleeved baseball shirt and well-worn pair of formerly white Chuck Taylors presenting the image of the lonesome hippy traveler. The deep red walls, low stage and long, drawn shades on the wall of windows running along the hallowed grounds of Boylston Street give the venue the intimacy of a coffee shop in spite of the high ceilings and sparse décor.
While the venue and its pristine sound (it is Berklee, after all) certainly lent itself nicely to the evening, Deluca has a way of performing that would make even the most cavernous of venues seem intimate. The opening vocal notes from set-opener “Through Fire” (from his latest LP) occurred on stage but turned away from the microphone, a technique that Deluca frequently employs when he cranks his throat to full throttle. Particularly when employed at the beginning of a song, or the beginning of a set, for that matter, it can be startling, a way of grabbing the perhaps distracted concertgoer by the ears and forcing them to pay attention.
Deluca’s hour-long set was an exercise in experimentation, of pushing musical limits, of focusing less on the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-repeat manner of prototypical performing and on taking some serious chances. Wright spent much of his evening with his eyes fixated on Deluca, doing his best to make sure that they were headed in the same (or in at least a similar) direction and to provide some sort of structure for Deluca’s ferocious lap steel skills to soar from. And soar they did. The spontaneous intimacy of the two-man band and the experimental, ethereal nature of Deluca’s playing (whether on the resonator or the lap steel or the “regular” guitar) created the lingering, vague sense that the entire thing could derail entirely at a moment’s notice due to the audience not really knowing where the duo were always going and where they were going to land. For what it’s worth, Deluca and Wright spoke later about the fact that they too feel the pains of creating an organic experience; that they spend time locked in to what the other is doing in order to try to land their respective planes on the same field. When it works, as it did throughout this set, the results are of the awe-inspiring, raise-the-hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck variety.
Spontaneity and intimacy would be a recurring theme. There was a plan for Deluca and I to catch up after his set for a one-on-one sit down. The veteran of many of these such artist sit downs, I prepared as normal, though as a fan since the early days of Deluca’s career, the traditional pre-interview homework was fairly easy. And yet the usual interview-by-numbers went quickly out the window. Deluca and Wright and I were joined in the greenroom by local (Boston) up-and-coming hip-hop artist Michael Christmas and his friend and aspiring music industry writer Raheem. Much of the discussion revolved around the artistic process and about Christmas and Deluca trying to build organically in their respective fields.
While underground Boston hip-hop and Los Angeles roots/post-alternative/Delta blues may not have obvious connections, Christmas and Deluca spoke of both in overlapping language. Christmas is a firm believer of building a following “by actually getting out and doing it; being genuine and making people give it right back to you.” A memorable live show, as Raheem pointed out, makes the patron feel “not like they’re an attendant, but there with you…building something together so that everyone leaves with something together that can never be reproduced at another show.” Deluca’s advice to the up-and-comers in the Boston hip-hop game was something he, himself, learned from friend, mentor and producer-extraordinaire Daniel Lanois: constantly push yourself, even at the expense of some other things. Always be woodshedding. Go way out, and do the work because even if this isn’t the one, it could lead to the one.
Some may scoff at the direction that Deluca has taken since the exposure that the Kiefer Sutherland era brought, seeming to thing that he already had “the one” and he somehow let it get away. To watch Deluca play and speak to him personally reveals a musician that revels in the “art,” who has learned that growth only comes from taking chances, and that while your audience may shrink in number, it will grow immeasurably in respect and shared understanding. Sometimes, that’s all the one you need.