David Gray + Ray LaMontagne: 25 August 2010 - Chicago

One would struggle to find a better place to be on a Wednesday evening: downtown Chicago in the beautiful Millennium Park, with a double bill featuring Ray LaMontagne and David Gray.

Ray LaMontagne

David Gray + Ray LaMontagne

City: Chicago
Venue: Jay Prizker Pavillion
Date: 2010-08-25

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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