Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner
Ray LaMontagne is that unassuming success story of awe-shucks charm and high-end luck. He worked a dead-end shoe-factory job in Lewiston, Maine after barely graduating from high school in Utah until one morning he heard Stephen Stills’ song “Treetop Flyer” playing on the radio. After purchasing Stills Alone he made the decision to follow in his absent father’s footsteps and pursue music.
Demo tapes followed as did local club appearances and sooner than later his tape found its way to a publisher at Chrysalis Music, who recorded his first album and then sold it to RCA records. That album, Trouble—full of melancholy acoustic ballads, echoey melodies, and serenading fiddles—was his launching pad into the folk-rock realm. Since then he has steadfastly, but timidly, held his own, refining his sentimental songwriting and soaring arrangements with producer Ethan Johns, who helped merge LaMontagne’s intertwining folk, rock, and funk sounds.
His current tour, in support of his third release Gossip in the Grain, features LaMontagne with the new album’s musical personnel and a gracefully mature, sensitive sound. He also brought his notorious reclusion, gently leading off each song with a whispered, “One, two, three, four…”
The evening’s setlist heavily favored tracks from Gossip in the Grain, which was understandable as the instrumentation on stage suited the album’s rich arrangements. Beginning with the blues-trodden opening track “You Are the Best Thing”, LaMontagne’s adaptable brass section punched lively despair into it. “Hey Me, Hey Mama” and the crowd pleaser “Three More Days” also received the full funk brass treatment, while others evoked a more traditional Preservation Hall jazz sound.
Most remarkable was the touch and dynamics applied by LaMontagne and his ensemble—which included Wurlitzer, pedal steel guitar, drums, and bass. Known for his devastatingly evanescent Van Morrison-style voice, (on “Roses and Cigarettes” his voice even seemed to sublimate, one moment solid, the next vaporous) the ability of the band to match his hazy vocal idiosyncrasies gave shape and emotional weight to each of the songs.
This was most effective in gorgeously slow pastoral ballads like “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame)”, “Sarah”, the ambiguously ironic but still playful “Meg White”, and the evening’s denouement, “Trouble”. Later solo, LaMontagne reverberated off of Radio City’s stellar acoustics.
Though LaMontagne maintained his shy persona, he could not hide from the crowd’s roaring response. It necessitated playing two encores (six songs total) to complete his own pinch-me, “Are you kidding me?” Radio City return—something the folk singer does not succumb to that easily.