You would struggle to find a better place to be on a Wednesday evening: downtown Chicago in the beautiful Millennium Park. It’s a fantastic summer night and just knowing I had two hours of music from Ray LaMontagne and David Gray ahead made me realize there was nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. Just in case the scene painting doesn’t sound picturesque enough, the audience was also treated to a 20 minute fireworks show midway through Gray’s set, seen over the trees from the nearby Navy Pier. It was one for the record books.
LaMontagne’s set was almost entirely songs off his new album God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise. Starting off with arguably the best of the ten songs from the album, LaMontagne opened with “The Summer”. While most of the new album has a heavy country sound to it, as did his previous album Gossip in the Grain, this song is more reminiscent of his first two albums. It’s heartfelt, moving and simplistic in nature. Throughout his set, he would pepper in some favorites, like “Trouble” off his first and well-loved album of the same name. The good news for Ray LaMontagne fans; the old stuff still sounds amazing. Even better news… so do his new songs.
But the tone of the night was down-home-and-dirty, bluegrass in spirit and accompanied with a slide guitar. LaMontagne sounds fantastic live; his voice is gritty, hoarse and wonderful. It’s moving juxtaposition, having a voice that is so rustic and gravelly in sound, but saying some of the most beautiful lyrics I sincerely believe to ever have been penned. He stood stage left for most of the show, about six feet from the front of the stage. It was evident that what was meant to take center stage was his voice.
His is not a concert you go to for a light show or spectacle. The audience rarely heard his voice other than through song. A few meek “thank yous” here and there, and that was all. The one moment in the show when LaMontagne spoke to the crowd, he let them know that “Chicago puts New York City to shame.” He said he walked the city during the day and loved the people and architecture, going as far as saying he only decided not to move to Chicago when he found out that you couldn’t “live in one of the buildings that looks like Batman” (he meant the Willis Tower and Hancock Building). The fans went wild. It only took him about three sentences to keep the crowd with him. And while he may not have the most outlandish stage persona, no one can fault the music.
The number of couples that started slow dancing when he played “Let it be Me” and “Hold you in my Arms” was enough to make the biggest cynic smile. Priztker Pavilion is a great venue for interaction. The oversized lawn section made the audience able to lie, dance or sway. It made for an equally impressive standing ovation which LaMontagne received for both “You are the Best Thing” and his encore “Jolene”. The standing audience seemed to stretch on into oblivion.
When David Gray took the stage, it was evident that his show was going to be a different animal entirely. Gray came on, accompanied with a much larger band; the stage draped with a netting of blue lights and smoke machines. While LaMontagne seemed dead-set on exposing the crowd to his then eight-day-old CD, David Gray had the crowd favorites on the docket. As his last CD, Draw the Line came out in September of last year, there wasn’t a pressing issue to play only new material. That being said, he still did play a lot of new material. He began with two songs off latest, “Fugitive” and “Draw the Line”. The big reaction from the audience didn’t appear until he played the first chord of “You’re the One I Love”, off his beloved 2005 album Life in Slow Motion, same with “Slow Motion” and “Now and Always”, off of the same album.
Gray rotated between the acoustic guitar and piano, frequently dancing and engaging with the crowd as he went. During “Sail Away”, he had everyone put their hands in the air and go side to side, stating that he “needed to see some waves for this song”. It was during “Nemesis” that we were exposed to Gray’s serious talent. The song, epic both in sound and length, had to have been 10-15 minutes in length. A disco ball dropped during the song, ricocheting off of the steel beams arcing over the grass section of the pavilion. It was like Gray harnessed his inner Grateful Dead jam sensibilities. By the end of it, he let the crowd know “I always feel like I’ve died and was born someone else after that song is over.”
Other highlights included hits “This Year’s Love” and “Babylon”, with the chorus sung solely by the fans. He brought volume with “Be Mine” and “Hello, Goodbye”, completely enthralling the venue. He was a presence on stage, giving the fans the songs they wanted to hear, but in a completely new way. “Please Forgive Me” was extended an additional five minutes with a serious jam session. With the energy that he exuded, there would be absolutely no way he could have played before LaMontagne. Gray’s increase in energy was exactly what needed to follow LaMontagne, to keep the fans’ attention and connect.
To finish the show, LaMontagne reappeared, and together they covered The Beatles “Dig a Pony”. It was great to hear two spectacular musicians cover a band that they both so evidently pull inspiration from. While it would have been really great to see them come out during one another’s sets to cover a song or two (of original material) it was a great end to a night that epitomizes Chicago in the summertime.