Chasing Twisters: Delta Rae Shows Off Brawny, Evolving Sound at Birmingham’s WorkPlay

Posted July 22, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Reviews 1.0

After It All tour stop reveals mounting evidence of a career breakthrough for the Southern folk-rock band with an ear for pop



Photography by J Matthew Cobb

Three years ago, Delta Rae — a fresh band from Durham, North Carolina with a debut album to show forth — were making their splash on the festival circuit, playing at regional fests like Hangout and Bonnaroo. Their set on the hot Manchester, Tennessee farm — in particular — really boosted their profile, since it was also streamed to thousands via YouTube. And despite the sweltering heat, their energy and passion for music  exploded past the outside pressures of the humid environment. At that stage, the music of Delta Rae sounded like a distant sibling of Mumford & Sons and Fleetwood Mac, saturated in Southern love and Nashvillian pop.

Now with a new album out (After It All) and back in the US after playing dates in Europe, Delta Rae is burning with a raging fire, now that their sound is more encompassing, versatile and polished than before. The six-piece folk-rock band made up of siblings and good college friends showed off their well honed craft during a concert stop at Birmingham’s WorkPlay. The cozy setup of the 300+ theatre provided viewers  rare intimate view of this powerhouse band, who deservingly belongs on a bigger stage at this point in their career. And the lucky gathering of fans and interested music lovers quickly learned that once the poised band hit the stage.

On this Tuesday night, Delta Rae rocked the walls of WorkPlay with an unbreakable confidence. Complete and more evolved, the band delivered a collection of versatile songs stretching from radio-ready pop, to feelgood R&B to soulful Americana.

With no gimmicks in place, they literally poured 100 percent of their talent into this magical show, even showing off their tight gospel-styled harmonies on powerful tracks like “Run,” the arpeggio-blessed “Scared,” “Dance Into the Graveyard” and “You’re the One for Me.” On the rollicking “Outlaws,” they shot down the ugly stereotype that often hinges to most Americana-branded bands by playing up power pop melodies and a glorious chorus worthy of sing-a-long status. But that didn’t stop them from getting ballsy. On “Bottom of the River” and “I Will Never Die,” they rushed to the chambers of angry Delta rock as if they were a part of a chain gang. Hopkins even runs to the side of the stage welding metal chains and pounding on an industrial trash can like a STOMP cast member.

Amazingly enough, the band has no real frontman. Eric Hölljes does much of the homework, playing boards and singing much of the lead vocals. But there’s also the fiery lead vocals of Brittany Hölljes and Elizabeth Hopkins, who both share a number of percussion instruments. To their side stands Ian Hölljes, a mesmeric acoustic guitarist blessed with almost the exact same vocal range and dexterity as Eric. All together, they sound like a well oiled machine, a mini gospel choir ready to compete on The Sing-Off. They showed that they could go full acappella (“Hey Hey Hey”) and pull off stripped-down versions of some of their studio songs. They also proved to be well versed on a variation of instruments. Bassist Grant Emerson jumps from electric to upright when duty calls.  Ian does the same when transitioning from acoustic guitar to ukulele.

The show was also blessed with occasional conversation, something overdue for a band that hasn’t performed Birmingham in two years. On one of their set’s pauses, Eric sheds some light on one of their most popular songs. During a meet and greet in Orlando, a fan told him “thank you for that song.” He used it to break up with his fiancé. Even though it’s quite bubbly, light uptempo and melodic, “If I Loved You” is an unapologetic, unadulterated break-up song.

Towards the end of their set, the band pulls out “All Good People.” It’s an emotional song written in tribute to the perished victims and sole survivors of the Mother Emmanuel AME Church massacre, and one that stands strong with the mightiest of freedom songs.

When they finally reach an end of their hour-long, fifteen minute set using a soaring impromptu reprise of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” on “Dance In the Graveyards,” the crowd demanded an encore. With only two albums to show off, how could a band that’s still so relatively young pull off an encore? Well, they did. And did they. “How about a couple more?,” Eric asked while rushing back to his keyboard, nestled behind a rustic upright piano enclosure. What the crowd got was an explosive cover of Sia’s “Chandelier” ripe with four-part harmonies and notes that literally pierced cracks in the ceiling. In closing, they made a grand leap off stage into the crowd for a totally unexpected “Hey Hey Hey,” showing off more of their Southern gospel seasoning.

There’s no denying that Delta Rae is posed to become the next big band to shake the industry. This is no average, mediocre band. Think of them as a hipster version of Lady Antebellum with a little less country and a little more Arcade Fire. Yes, that formula may be too much for typical radio these days, but why should such a talented band with the blessing of doing it all confine themselves to a particular cookie cutter format? They are playing by their own rules, and are clearly “after it all.”

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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