Watch that swinging door

It’s not clear whether they’re brave or crazy.

In a bar crowded with people who don’t know the band, Delta 88 is opening up quiet. Danny Kline’s pure voice makes a sweet plea through the smoke and red lights, over the clash of glasses, desperate chatter and harsh laughter.

It’s a rare song, with a melody like the split-log fences early generations built to mark their fields — delicate but stubborn, with wistful lyrics: the farm’s favorite son lying on his back in fall wheat, remembering what he’s lost, dreaming about what he’ll find.

A few tables from the stage, a woman frowns and sends her sandwich back. The harried waiter heads for the kitchen, checking the clock. Two girls in tight shirts sit down as the men at the next table glance over and guffaw.

Everywhere the guys play is the same place: the same drunk talking shit between sets, the same women in tiger-skin miniskirts, age only partly hidden under careful makeup, the same packs of college kids looking to score, the same bored bartenders and harassed waitresses — everyone talking loud, because they can’t hear themselves over the band.

Local bands don’t usually have the luxury of a crowd that’s paid to hear them play. No one in the place has bought a ticket. Most of them didn’t know who would be on stage today. The Deltas sing for strangers, have to introduce themselves, have to make new friends each time. It’s something you must be crazy, or brave, to try.

They talk about quitting.

Alex Anest, Delta 88’s guitarist, was sure Jim Latini, the drummer and newest member, would be fed up by the end of their August tour of points south. Kline worries that the whole band will get fed up and walk out on him one day. Or maybe he’ll be the one to quit, trade it all in on a pretty wife and a motorbike, and sing songs Saturday afternoons for kids at the library. Anest quits himself, from time to time. The promo man, gig-finder, Web site-updater, holding down another full-time job — sometimes he just can’t do it anymore, has to let it go for a week or so.

Kline’s quit before, too. It’s too hard, a waste of time. Late nights, tough crowds, choking on smoke; what’s he got to show for it? He decided, no more songwriting. Then the next day, he wrote 10 new tunes.

Anest is Delta 88’s Wild West lawman. His sure-footed guitar makes the steepest trails seem simple, even pausing sometimes to throw wry jokes over its shoulder on the way. But he’s got a bit of the outlaw in him too — watch close; every now and then you’ll catch him wandering into the wilderness, his face tilted back to catch some wind only he can feel.

Latini, on drums, keeps the train rolling, an unflappable conductor, but one with secrets. Through the tangle of his trap set, every now and then his strong harmonies float, sung as if he’s trying to make himself heard over a bad connection to heaven.

Half grizzled backwoods swamp fiend, half late-’70s sex machine, haywire John Sperendi plays bass like a blind man, his tongue stuck out with the concentration of a 6-year-old drawing rays for a blue sun. Sperendi’s sound is one of Delta 88’s distinctives. His bass lines run up and down stairs, sometimes sliding on the banisters, sometimes stopping on a landing to share memories or trade insults with Anest’s guitar. Over them, Kline’s voice soothes and aches by turns, singing his own songs as if he’s discovering them for the first time, right there at the mic.

Delta 88’s self-titled debut CD is not by a local band — and folks who buy it know it. It’s not another amateur effort that you pick up at the end of a long night because the drummer, or the girl selling the CDs, is cute, and you haven’t managed to drink your last $12 yet. It’s a disc people, once they get it home, listen to all the time. In New York, Florida, Maryland, it doesn’t leave the CD changer. If it does, friends come over and put it back in. They know Delta 88, because the last time they were over and the disc was playing, they asked who it was. From Cincinnati, Cleveland, Cheboygan, they write on the band’s message board: Come back soon. There’ll be more here next time. We don’t want to live much longer without hearing you play that song again.

Kline’s songs have a strange, stark innocence, the compositions of someone who’s made it through bad weather with his dreams still whole. The book they’re written in is beat up a little, maybe, but the words and pictures on the pages are still as clear as the day they were drawn — made even more precious, perhaps, by surviving the storm. Along with Anest’s “Smoke #20,” they weave a world that, despite all the rain and heartbreaking girls, despite all the waiting at the bar and by the side of the road, is fundamentally hopeful. Hold on a little longer, they say. Everything will be all right. This will turn out OK.

Everywhere the band plays is the same place. Somewhere, between the first chord and the end of the set, it’s a Delta 88 show. The bar can do whatever it likes, but the band has the mics and has something to say. And they’ll play it their way: Start out soft, if that’s how it feels. Things will quiet down eventually. Or they’ll catch the audience with a crowd-pleasing romp like “Feeling Low,” which will have even the surliest drunk tapping his footrest.

The rockers aren’t just an attempt to drown out the drunks, though. The band often seems to use them as part of a bait-and-switch, following them up with sudden downshifts into delicate pieces such as Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” as if to say, “Now that you’re paying attention, listen.”

But set lists can’t really tell you anything. Come to the shows and certain songs will wear a groove in your soul: “Stone Quarry”’s simple hope, “Truth is a Whisper”’s tired wisdom, the sweet insistence of “Santa Fe,” written by Latini’s brother, who left the song in Delta 88’s hands when he moved out of the music scene to become an attorney.

There’s that question again: Are they brave or crazy? What about those real jobs beckoning in the distance? Is anyone listening to them? How, really, are they going to feed their kids?

Somewhere inside the songs, you stop asking. And maybe it’s because Delta 88 have. Anest, face thrown back to some sun that shines on only him; Latini, blissed-out on the beat; Sperendi, lost in space; Kline, eyes closed in cowboy prayer.

At the table by the stage, the woman shimmies in her seat, clapping clumsily with the beat. On the street, two girls pause, listen, come in. And when the tiger-skin women finally leave, a man passing by outside dances a few steps as the door swings open, caught for a instant by the music that follows with them.

Carey Wallace is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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