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Indie songs with staying power

Delta Spirit is moved by varied influences

From left: Kelly Winrich, Matt Vasquez, Sean Walker, Brandon Young, and Jon Jameson of the San Diego band Delta Spirit. From left: Kelly Winrich, Matt Vasquez, Sean Walker, Brandon Young, and Jon Jameson of the San Diego band Delta Spirit. (Matt wignall)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / June 22, 2008

Bands love to fantasize about winding up on the same record label as their heroes. It's a badge of honor for an up-and-comer to share a home with Dylan or Springsteen or the late, great Kurt Cobain. Ask Delta Spirit frontman Matt Vasquez why Burlington-based Rounder Records is the right label for his band, and the 23-year-old singer and songwriter offers a revealing response.

"I love Alan Lomax's stuff. You progressively hear his subjects getting drunk and then telling him the real deal, not just the nice churchy stuff. Jelly Roll Morton is the best example. I got the complete eight-disc set after we signed," says Vasquez, sounding like he just hit the jackpot in Vegas.

Folk-music historians and jazz pioneers aren't the usual reference points for indie-rock upstarts, but Vasquez isn't talking about musical influences. He genuflects at the altar of veracity. Vasquez sings lines like "If you're feeling what I'm feeling, come on/ All you soul-searching people, come on" like an incantation, without a whiff of irony. Pianos stomp, drums bash, guitars buzz, and blood pumps - mightily - through dusky waltzes and fevered rockers that ring like a generational call-to-arms.

"We're planting our own garden," goes the refrain on "Strange Vine," and like everything else on "Ode to Sunshine," the band's upcoming debut album, the sound and the message are of a piece: get real.

Better than any young band in recent memory, San Diego's Delta Spirit (which plays the Middle East Upstairs Wednesday) fuses the soulfulness and integrity we associate with bygone eras in American popular music with youthful spirit and a DIY sensibility.

But the group's connection to the past is less with a particular era or genre than a musical strength of character whose currency has diminished value in modern rock. And that makes "Ode to Sunshine," which comes out Aug. 26, more than a promising debut. It feels important, because it feels like it won't be forgotten in 15 minutes, or maybe even 15 years.

That's the exception to the rule in modern rock, and it's what leapt from the speakers for Rounder A&R director Dave Godowsky, who with his colleague Troy Hansbrough, signed the band in March.

"I listen to songs and then I stop and see if I remember them an hour later. If I do, I see if I remember the song the next day. Ninety-five percent of the songs, even the ones I like, I don't remember an hour later," says Godowsky. "I remembered Delta Spirit's songs the next day, and the next week. There's honest passion in their music. You can't get that at Urban Outfitters."

There's also a powerful spiritual streak, although Vasquez, on the phone from a tour stop in Florida, is at a bit of a loss trying to articulate the role of faith in his life.

"I don't go to church," he says, "but I really believe in a lot of things. I believe people are equal and they're also incredibly messed up. Me included. I have faith that I'm alive and it's really great to be here. If there is a god, great. If there isn't, it's insane that we exist. I want to believe in something. That's where the motivation comes from for those kinds of songs."

Delta Spirit formed two years ago after drummer Brandon Young, on a 2 a.m. cigarette run, passed a downtown light-rail station where Vasquez was standing on a bench, singing at the top of his lungs.

"I lived with five people in a two-bedroom apartment," Vasquez explains. "There was no way I could play music at night."

The two bonded immediately and soon discovered they had a friend in common: bassist Jon Jameson, who had played with Young in the emo outfit Noise Ratchet. The threesome recruited guitarist Sean Walker and Vasquez's old friend Kelly Winrich, a multi-instrumentalist.

"Kelly's the rich kid in the band," Vasquez says. "His parents' house has this crazy studio overlooking the ocean where we'd practice and record. But it's close to home and our friends were always coming over and distracting us, so we took our gear and went to a cabin in Julian, [Calif.], out in the country, to make the record."

Labels were already circling a year ago when Delta Spirit, which quickly became a staple on the Southern California club circuit, decided to record "Ode to Sunshine" without the backing of a record company.

"We'd show them demos, and they'd be like, 'Oh, it's great,' but everybody's been through the grind of some person you don't know yet telling you their two cents on how it should sound," Vasquez recalls. "So we told them all to go away. We have a great booking agent and we'd made some money on the road [opening for Cold War Kids and Dr. Dog], and when it came time, we saved up our money to have it mixed."

Weaned on Nirvana, the Pixies, and Weezer (" 'Blue Album' and 'Pinkerton' Weezer, not now Weezer," he clarifies), Vasquez says it's not so much sounds or styles that have shaped him, but musicians throughout history who have been devoted to the fine art of independent thinking.

"Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Talking Heads. They're characters, almost folkloresque, because they did exactly what they wanted to do," he says. "I don't know if I've earned that in my life, to say that I am a character. But if I could chase anything, it would be that."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com. For more on music, go to boston.com/ae/music/blog.

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