I stumbled upon the band Delta Rae several years ago, when their 2017 EP A Long And Happy Life showed up in my inbox as a streaming service recommendation. I fell in love with the four song, somewhat country flavored set, but sadly didn’t look much deeper into that band at the time.
Fast forward to October of 2021. Delta Rae was playing Denver’s Bluebird Theater, and on a whim, I decided to check them out live. Rumor had it their live shows were special. Rumor was mostly right. But rumor didn’t do the show justice. The band put on an exceptional show, and I was hooked.
Almost a year and a half later, Delta Rae returned to the Bluebird, as part of their Return of the Witch Tour that started on March 20 in Seattle. This past Wednesday night’s gig – their seventh date on a tour that takes them through the end of April – was every bit as exceptional, and even more so, than their show a year and a half prior.
If you’re not familiar with Delta Rae, you’re missing one of the most talented and unique acts in music today. The six-piece band, which hails originally from Durham, NC, blends multiple musical styles into something that is completely and uniquely their own.
The band describes their musical style as “gospel-tinged country-rock, sensual blue-eyed soul and harmony-laden Americana”. I would add two items to that already eclectic description. There’s an almost mystical feel to much of their music. And those harmonies? They literally soar. Their music is sometimes haunting, sometimes thrilling, and sometimes just flat out beautiful.
The core of Delta Rae is a trio of siblings (Ian, Eric and Brittany Hölljes) plus childhood friend Liz Hopkins. Ian handles vocals and guitar, Eric adds vocals, guitar, piano and keys, and Brittany and Liz share lead vocal duty. That group originally joined forces in 2009, when they moved into a big house in the woods outside Durham. In 2010, Mike McKee (percussion) and Grant Emerson (bass guitar) were added. Amazingly, that six-person lineup is still intact today.
The Return Of The Witch tour is a nod to Brittany, who has recently returned to the band in full force after having to detach herself somewhat to deal with personal tragedy in her own life. Brittany was on stage when the band played Denver a year and half ago, but her participation was muted and understated. She sang beautifully, but it was clear there was a lot going on with her that impacted her focus and ability to participate fully. Much credit goes to her for carrying on, despite her personal struggles.
The band lovingly refers to her as “The Witch”, partly because she is a believer in the mystical arts and a practitioner of magic. On the band’s Facebook page, she is referred to as “our witchy woman and conjurer of Delta ghosts”. The name of this tour refers to her full return to the band.
And what a return it was. In Wednesday night’s 18-song, hour and twenty-minute set, Brittany and Liz shared center stage as equals. Their vocal stylings are very different, allowing the band the freedom to cross genre boundaries to a degree very few artists or bands can even consider. Add in Ian’s and Eric’s voices, and you have an extraordinary amount of vocal horsepower. When the four of them bring it all together, the four-party harmony generated is awe-inspiring. Several times during the night, and most notably during the song “Morning Comes”, I found myself compelled to just close my eyes to let the majesty of those vocals wash over me.
For the Bluebird show, and I presume for the duration of the tour, the band has added Los Angeles based record producer, songwriter, and touring musician Mark McKee (yes, he’s Mike’s brother) to the lineup on electric guitar. Mark McKee stayed in the background for most of the night, until it came time for him to step forward for a killer solo on the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”. It was on that same song that bassist Emerson, who also does most of his excellent work in the background, stepped forward for an equally killer bass solo. With those two at center stage, near pandemonium broke out as the entire band danced and jammed their way through the conclusion of the song.
I already mentioned that the set consisted of 18 songs – 17 in the base set followed by an amazing version of “Dance In The Graveyards” as an encore. Most of the songs in the set were what someone familiar with the bank’s discography would expect, from the incredible opener “Chasing Twisters” to “Out Of The Badlands” to “Somewhere In The Desert” to “Bottom Of The River”. (More on that last song in a minute.) But there were some surprises sprinkled in as well.
Case in point, the uplifting “Back To The Garden”, from the 2020 album The Light. At the conclusion of that song Liz acknowledged the enthusiastic crowd reception, noting that they don’t play that song that much in live shows, and how gratifying it was to see the crowd singing along with it.
Then there’s one of the evenings most special moments. The band had just finished “Morning Comes”, which absolutely brought the house down. Everyone except Eric and Brittany left the stage. Eric then proceeded to announce that the band’s years long labor of love, a “Southern Gothic Musical” is in its wrap up stages. All 26 songs have been written and recorded, and they’re currently working to find support to bring the musical to Broadway.
Eric and Brittany then performed the beautiful and haunting “Try Me” from the soundtrack. The band returned to perform a second song from the soundtrack, the rousing “Back To The Blood”, before closing out the main set with “Bottom Of The River”. It was unclear to me whether “Bottom” is to be part of the soundtrack. Thematically it fits in perfectly, so my assumption is that it will.
The performance was – as their performances always are – energized and powerful. The upbeat numbers had the crowd in a frenzy, while the ballads were poignant and inspiring. To a person the members of this band throw every ounce of their energy into their live performances. There’s an earnestness and an honesty that’s palpable, genuinely connecting to those in attendance. That’s just the way they are.
If you were there Wednesday night, you know what I mean. Or if you’ve seen them in the past, you know as well. If you haven’t seen them perform live, take this as the highest possible recommendation to find your way to a Delta Rae show at your next opportunity.
Addendum: If you’re interested in finding out more about the upcoming musical, which will tentatively be called The Ninth Woman, here are two resources for you. First, there’s an outstanding hour and a half video with the band on YouTube, at https://www.google.com/deltarae.theninthwoman. The band talks about the process of putting the project together, shares details about the story and characters, and presents eight songs from the soundtrack. The second resource is the band’s website. The band offers fans an opportunity to participate in an interactive online experience called Behind The Door. Yes, it’s a “pay for” service, which will cost you $10 per month, or $100 per year. If you sign up, you can immediately download the eight songs that were included in the video referenced above, as well as the songs from their acoustic album, creatively called Acoustic, which was released in July of last year. Here’s the link to the band’s website… https://deltarae.com/.
Story and photos by Rick Witt www.rickwittphotography.com