Photos are from May 1st, “Ray LaMontagne Performs Intimate Concert at Town Hall in New York City Exclusively for Citi Cardmembers”. Photo credits: Sachyn Mital
Sometimes the music speaks for itself. The introspective singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne seemed to be quietly relishing his newfound, extroverted musical persona last Friday night at the New York City’s Town Hall. Every now and then a slight grin appeared upon his face, as if he couldn’t believe he was finally giving himself permission to strap on an electric guitar and step out of his acoustic comfort zone. His stage presence remained as famously reserved as it’s always been though, with audience banter kept to a minimum, but LaMontagne, who rose to fame in the years following his 2004 debut album Trouble, wasn’t hiding behind a hushed selection of songs this time around. Touring in support of his latest effort, the sold out concert was part of a two-night run at the famed, ninety-three year old performance hall, and it appeared he was more than ready to defy audience expectation. Gone were the sparse, rootsy folk songs enrobed in lush strings and the melancholic Americana he has always executed so deftly. They’ve been largely chucked out the window, in favor of the experimental, psychedelic-pop of fifth studio album Supernova.
In a live setting, the glossy sheen of Dan Auerbach’s moderately overcooked production work was replaced by something much more immediate and raw. The songs blossomed, as aggressively amped up guitars and Belle Brigade-member Barbara Gruska’s intricate percussion fortified LaMontagne’s instantly hummable melodies, giving them space to breathe. Theatrics were kept to a minimum, appearing only within the occasional solo instrumental break, as LaMontagne and his tight, four piece band plowed through fourteen songs in eighty minutes. The new album was played in its entirety, with the remaining songs culled from his past two records, eschewing anything from Trouble or Till the Sun Turns Black. It mattered little that the “hits” that brought him recognition were largely ignored, as it was abundantly clear that LaMontagne’s songwriting skills have only sharpened with age and the new material was as strong as anything that preceded it.
The intimate venue proved to be an ideal setting for the band’s new material, as the audience was treated to a performance that often felt like it was delivered from someone’s living room instead of relatively quaint, 1,500 seat auditorium. Beginning with the title track to 2009’s Gossip in the Grain, LaMontagne sang lyrics about a “silly sparrow”, seemingly giving some members of the crowd a source of vocal inspiration. Throughout the evening, a variety of bird calls rang out from different parts of the auditorium, somehow never becoming particularly irritating. His faithful followers remained politely enraptured throughout the set, rarely standing up from their seats, but choosing to express their appreciation through the occasional shout out to Ray on stage, prompting him to engage with them. Halfway through the night, he bashfully obliged, but it was through the music that he really came alive.
Three tracks from the Grammy Award-winning God Willin’ or the Creek Don’t Rise were woven into the setlist, with the hit single “Beg Steal or Borrow” proving to be a definite highlight of the night. Perennial crowd favorite “Meg White” popped up between the raucous, stand and deliver song “Smashing”, with its bluesy Neil Young and Crazy Horse-flavored vibe and the deliriously trippy, Scottish lass-loving track “Julia”. “Lavender” evoked imagery of a blissfully drugged out afternoon under an expansive sky, “Ojaj” sounded like classic Stills and Young, while the hazy, slow-churning stomp of “Pick up a Gun” belied the sarcastic lyricism underneath its pleasant backing chorus of “ah’s”. The gritty “She’s the One” saw LaMontagne in full-on raspy Joe Cocker mode, as he snarled his way through the fuzzy song bellowing “I’ve just got to know that girl”.
The sound might have initially been a bit muddy at Town Hall that night, with Ray’s vocals buried a bit too deeply in the mix, but once that was quickly righted the evening took off. The new psychedelia-inflected songs seemed to suit LaMontagne’s voice perfectly well, further reinforcing the idea that he could continue experimenting with his sound on subsequent records, and still deliver something quite remarkable. Immensely catchy lead single “Supernova” seemed to really resonate with the audience, but it was the final encore that truly lingered on in the mind.
The nostalgic “Drive-In Movies” was a flawless closer to the new album, but in a live setting it took on epic proportions, as if witnessing an instant classic in the making. It would be a crime if LaMontagne and his record company didn’t see fit to promote it as one of Supernova’s accompanying singles. He sings,
I spent all my childhood years wishin’ that I looked like a Movie-Star | A cigarette behind my ear, leaning’ up against a muscle car… I wanna be the guy who doesn’t like to fight but who could kick your ass if you touch his girl.
While the bearded musician of few words doesn’t appear to be quite ready to embrace his full on Brando yet, he’s definitely headed in the right direction. Danish author Hans Christian Andersen said it perfectly, “Where words fail, music speaks”, and LaMontagne’s songs conveys everything he cannot seemingly verbalize onstage. In a way, that quiet humanity is exactly what has made him such a relatable and endearing musician from the very beginning.
Ray LaMontagne Performs Intimate Concert at Town Hall in New York City Exclusively for Citi Cardmembers” May 1st 2014 photos: