There are few artists whose music evokes the coming of autumn more than Ray LaMontagne. Thus, it seemed only fitting that as I walked from my car to the venue, I should take note of the first turning of leaves and a chill in the air that signals the true end of summer.
Despite having lived in Chicago on and off since 1986, this would be my first concert at the esteemed Chicago Theatre; a venue so beautiful in its regal elegance as to invite comparisons to Michaelangelo.
Once inside, I drew my first gaze and felt myself exhale. Home.
Moments later, I would momentarily wish I’d never left home.
There’s nothing worse than attending a concert and having the opening act take a complete shit onstage, to the extent that if there were a dentist in town that could fit you in at a moment’s notice, you’d schedule a root canal (necessary or not) rather than subject yourself to further musical nonsense.
And, thus, there I was having the life sucked out of me by opener Leona Naess.
Backed by a minimal acoustic duo whose own musical prowess was minimal at best, Naess’ songs were delivered in one dull, barely audible whisper after another, broken by the incessant plucking of strings as Naess tuned her guitar — at length — after nearly every song. Stage banter? Oh, nothing more than the occasional shy, self-deprecating, barely audible observation delivered with all the Lee Press-On humility of an heiress. Additionally, Naess’s absent-minded second-grade-music-teacher persona was most certainly meant to appear coy, cute, and endearing. It was not.
At one point, an audience member interrupted her eighth (yes, eighth) between-song guitar tuning to yell “You suck.” Naess seemed taken aback, whimpering “That was mean.”
It may have been, but when you’re forced to endure a woman whose bloated sense of importance must surely block out the sun perform so amateurishly in a venue fit only for kings, you tend to wanna respond, “It was meant to be.”
By stark contrast, LaMontagne and band took the stage moments later and reminded each and every person in this esteemed musical cathedral why we were there. Despite being a bit unconventional himself, LaMontagne sticks to his strengths with a humble ferocity that is endearing because it is sincere. There is nothing put-on about Ray LaMontagne.
Plus, he had the good sense to hire someone to tune his guitars for him. Of course, just when we thought we’d gotten rid of Naess, after three songs, Ray announced she’d be joining him on the next song. Later in the set, he would do the same, but, this time, Leona could not be bothered. It took a second request before Leona bounced onstage, blushing in faux embarrassment as bassist Jennifer Condos noticeably rolled her eyes.
While LaMontagne certainly hoped to let his music do the talking, which it most certainly did, audience members took advantage of the silence between songs to work on their comedy routines, shouting out one cheap-beer-induced utterance after another.
Yes, even “Freebird.”
Most striking, of course, was the fact that Ray and band (producer Ethan Johns on drums, Eric Heywood on guitar/pedal steel, Chris Joiner on keyboards, and the aforementioned Condos on bass) used this show as a vehicle from which to perform ten songs from an album that hasn’t even been released yet. The album in question, Gossip in the Grain, hits shelves October 14 and, while such favorites as “Trouble” and “You Can Bring Me Flowers” were played, the emphasis was clearly on bringing the new songs to the people.
Of those songs, “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s A Shame)” blew the roof off the juke joint, while the ethereal “A Falling Through” was riveting in its evocative textures and delicate vocal interplay between LaMontagne and Naess. As the song ended, fading to silence, a large speck of dust fell from a stage light high above, like a single, solitary snowflake. I watched, thinking at first that it was intentional, knowing it couldn’t possibly have been, and wondering if I was the only one who saw it.
The beauty and solitary wonder of LaMontagne’s performance, juxtaposed against the audience’s lack thereof, had me thinking much the same thing.