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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Fog/Mist
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At High Noon Saloon, Delta Spirit's Northern California soul punches hard
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Delta Spirit's dizzy, mystical lyrics are grounded by a flannel-shirt mentality.
Delta Spirit's dizzy, mystical lyrics are grounded by a flannel-shirt mentality.

It would have been worth taking in the nearly sold-out Delta Spirit show at the High Noon Saloon Thursday night just to hear band leader Matt Vasquez's classic farewell at the end. "Hopefully next time we'll be back sooner than the last time!" he smiled. He had been smiling all night. The entire band had. They had a lot to smile about: A pallet of catchy songs to draw from and a house that was radiating more positive energy than an Amway convention.

They almost didn't make it. "On the way here we got in a car wreck," said Vasquez as he sat down at the keyboard late in the set. "We had to hit their car," he explained. There was something about an FBI agent showing up on the scene. "But we got out of it," Vasquez said. "Sometimes things work out." Then he pounded out a dead-pan, sing-along cover of "Wish You Were Here."

It was one of the only covers. The group's latest album, History from Below, is 11 songs of what has been come to be known as Northern California soul. Okay. Close enough for me. Delta Spirit is to Northern California what Bon Iver is to Northern Wisconsin -- dizzy, mystical lyrics grounded by a flannel shirt mentality. Only Delta Spirit has more hair-flinging, Southern boogie and appears to have a lot more fun.

"911" has a fire-alarm urgency with an irresistible, Dave Edmunds/Rockpile back beat. Vasquez handles all vocals. Supportive vocals are side thoughts, half given. It doesn't matter because his tenor voice is beautiful, full, with rips in it just where the song asks.

Part of the party onstage came from free and frequent use of percussion loaded in at the center. A marching-band bass drum was perched on a stand and turned head side up. It thundered during the rowdy, feedback-filled finish of "Bushwick Blues." The band recorded a stirring acoustic version of the song at Tom Waits' studio in Cotati, California.

All of the songs from History from Below punched harder live than they do on the album, which is something you'd consider taking to your in-laws' for Thanksgiving Day. Live, the same music would get you barred from the family. Vasquez even screeched the ballads last night. In a good way. "Ransom Man," like a lovely Methodist hymn on the record, is a blast furnace on stage.

Delta Spirit's heavy metal instincts are as evident as the spiritual stuff. But despite the rock 'n' roll ethos, there are very few instrumental breaks in the band's songs. Even larger guitar passages are structural, not solo takes. It works like a charm. The music sounds somehow rougher that way. It plays with expectations; it creates tension as you wait for the guitar to speak alone.

With his earnest singing and forlorn words, Vasquez seems like someone's discarded, troubled uncle. His songs come with huge dynamics shifts and, my favorite part, changes in tempo. These give each song the feeling of an album's worth of music in one tune, like a travelogue, a slide show, as happened in the spaghetti western soundtrack of "St. Francis."

At the end of the last song, as they left the stage, the musicians deviously arranged their instruments to create maximum feedback, a sonic boom that lifted the room high. They came back with a version of "Shout" that would make Bluto from Animal House blush. I looked at my son Tucker during this one. He had a crooked smile, as did we all. I want to thank Tucker for introducing me to Vasquez's hearty music.

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