Delta Rae at the 9:30 Club

The North Carolina folk rock group Delta Rae perform at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. Photo: Delta Rae

WASHINGTON, January, 25, 2012 —When a band consists primarily of family members, people have a tendency to overstate the band’s interpersonal closeness, as if it’s inherently true these bands invariably have a tighter rapport with one another. This perception seems doubly true if the band in question happens to hail from the South. In the larger scheme of things, it’s not that this notion is necessarily false or that it doesn’t figure heavily in both the songs and the sound such a band puts out. But conventional wisdom often times overshadows more crucial aspects of a band’s sound given that family, not art, dominates the public narrative surrounding such a band.

Case in point: Delta Rae is the kind of band whose family members can and often are the entire focus of how an audience listens to the band on recordings or perceives them in a live performance. The fact that Delta Rae was originated in Durham, North Carolina by siblings Ian, Eric, and Brittany Hölljes is certainly an important aspect of the band. But for the most part, the band’s family connection functions as an anecdote, without necessarily determining the music and philosophy at the band’s core. In fact, Delta Rae goes way beyond that, especially when it involves the unique output of singer Elizabeth Hopkins, whose voice significantly adds to and builds on the three siblings’ influence over the band’s direction and sound.

The most interesting thing to focus on in terms the band members and their music is the closeness of their close Southern roots and how that close association affects their sound. The band often gets classified by writers and critics as “Americana.” But what that term really attempts to describe is the prevalence of American influences that are melded together into a vaguely rock ‘n roll package.

For their part, Delta Rae fuses country, folk, and blues into something that’s distinctly contemporary, but that never leans too hard on any one genre as a crutch. The influences are readily identifiable. But the ingredients are all in there in such a subtle way that they never dominate Delta Rae’s sound, allowing them to clearly emerge as a freestanding talent and sound.

That’s been the key to Delta Rae’s rise in popularity over the last several years. They’ve been touring for quite some time in smaller venues than the 9:30 Club—which is where they appeared here in DC—and the aura surrounding them suggests they still possess a surprisingly humble frame of mind in performance. Their various influences a listener perceives hint strongly toward their background of performing in smaller, more intimate venues. This, in turn, still allows them to connect strongly with a larger crowd even in their quieter moments. The mixture of vocals the band employs – all three of the Hölljes and Hopkins – is ingratiating enough that they can pull this sensitivity off confidently, even when adding an unexpectedly sentimental touch to a given vocal.

Yet, while Delta Rae is able to hit those softer emotional nuances effectively and unpretentiously, they can also give them an added, passionate punch. The band, in fact, is at their absolute best when they’re putting out a much larger and broader sound. They embody the notion of Americana as a musical genre about as well as any band can. The constituent parts of those genres that make up Americana as a whole are generally meant to be played with a deft and subtle touch. But sometimes other instincts, other influences just seep through. In this case, Delta Rae’s tilt towards putting out good old traditional rock music is what comes out in full force in their performance.

Delta Rae’s overall intent might be to work in as much of the country, blues, and folk influences they can in their set. But in fact, the band’s most affecting moments are when they indulge in their own extended take on traditional rock. That’s not to say the other influences on their output disappear when the spirit of rock takes over. They’re still skirting the edges nearly all the time, seemingly by instinct. It’s at moments like this that the band arguably achieves uniqueness, at which point they’re not necessarily trying to craft anything but simply going straight ahead. Musical moments like these are also the moments when playing at a venue like the 9:30 Club suits them perfectly and lets them become their most genuine collective self.

Ultimately this is what made Delta Rae’s show at the 9:30 Club compelling. While they’re a relatively new band and they’re far from a finished product, there’s still a lot of skill and many compelling moments evident in this band’s set. They push their influences into something a bit more modern than an audience might expect. And this, in turn, creates a solid foundation for Delta Rae to build on as they progress further in the months and years ahead.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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