Thereâ€™s a faction of music fans out there who are annoyed by Ray LaMontagne, and itâ€™s not too difficult to understand why. Hereâ€™s a guy who refuses to behave like a pop star, or even a traditional frontman, after taking 50 bucks of your money. Onstage, he occupies one edge of his bandâ€™s semicircular setup and rarely moves from his spot, meaning that patrons on the right side of the auditorium may never see his face in full. Thereâ€™s no spotlight on him, no between-song communication with the audience, and LaMontagne seems so shy â€¦ not so much shy, actually, but occasionally uncertain of his surroundings and his place within them â€¦ that a listener can be forgiven for wondering if one more obnoxious â€œwhoopâ€ or song request from the audience will spur poor Ray to pack up his guitar and go back to that shoe factory in Maine, never to be heard from again.
Yes, itâ€™s easy to understand why an uninitiated listener might find LaMontagneâ€™s stage presence irritating â€“ until he opens his mouth to sing. That voice! So clearly a product of its influences, and yet such a primal, naturalistic instrument that one imagines it was bestowed upon him in some sort of wee-hours crossroads deal, as though the devil still had one more trade up his sleeve after draining the usefulness from Robert Johnsonâ€™s soul.
Of course, we know the devil couldnâ€™t have been involved in this particular deal, because if thereâ€™s one thing LaMontagneâ€™s singing projects in spades, itâ€™s soul. Whether he was performing the countrified tunes off his new Gossip in the Grain album, or channeling Memphis R&B on the already-classic â€œThree More Days,â€ the emotional resonance in LaMontagneâ€™s rasping voice kept the pre-Halloween audience at L.A.â€™s Wiltern Theatre riveted. Iâ€™ve honestly never witnessed so many fellow concertgoers leaning forward in their seats, pulled from positions of greater comfort by an instinctive need to get a little bit closer to the source of that sound.
Well, maybe thatâ€™s an overreaction to the fact that his vocals were micâ€™ed just barely above his accompaniment, and some of those patrons (this wasnâ€™t the youngest crowd the Wiltern has ever hosted) probably were straining just to hear them. Nevertheless, thereâ€™s much to be said for a person of such immense talent who insists upon immersing himself in his bandâ€™s groove, rather than dominating it. And LaMontagne, whose L.A. gig came near the end of a six-week nationwide trek, clearly has found his comfort zone (and his preferred decibel level) within the confines of his rhythm section (Jennifer Condos on bass, producer Ethan Johns on drums), keyboardist Chris Joiner, and particularly within the open and elastic sounds of guitarist and pedal-steel virtuoso Eric Heywood.
Heywood, content most of the night to provide gorgeous coloration to midtempo songs like the set-opening new single â€œYou Are the Best Thingâ€ and â€œI Still Care for You,â€ leapt at his opportunity to light the stage en fuego with an incendiary guitar solo on â€œHenry Nearly Killed Me (Itâ€™s a Shame).â€ LaMontagne & Co. hit the road well before the release of Gossip in the Grain, and they have devoted a healthy proportion of their set lists to introducing the new music. That can be a frustrating endeavor, with patrons holding out for â€œJoleneâ€ or â€œTroubleâ€; so it must have been a comfort to the band, now that the albumâ€™s been out a couple weeks, to hear the audience respond warmly to the opening bars of new songs like â€œLet It Be Meâ€ and â€œHey Me, Hey Mama.â€
A jazzy ramble through â€œYou Can Bring Me Flowersâ€ and a piercing version of â€œShelterâ€ led to set-closer â€œTroubleâ€ (muddied, unfortunately, by the addition of Heywoodâ€™s pedal-steel) and a â€œThree More Daysâ€/â€œJoleneâ€ encore. But then the band left LaMontagne alone onstage for a closing rendition of the elegiac ballad â€œBurnâ€; as he strummed his guitar quietly and sang in a pleading voice, â€œOh, mama, donâ€™t leave me alone/With my soul sat down so tight itâ€™s like a stone-cold tomb,â€ he finally brought down the barrier he erects between himself and the audience. All is forgiven, Ray! Turn the lights all the way down â€“ turn your back to us, even, if you must. Just donâ€™t stop singing.
Opening act Leona Naess has taken her share of flack on this tour, judging from previous online reviews such as my Popdose colleague Darren Robbinsâ€™ treatise on the Chicago stop. It seems clear that Naess has worked out the kinks and gained some confidence on the way West, and her set here was warmly received. She has a certain awkward charm, to be sure, and her new album (produced, like LaMontagneâ€™s work, by Johns) shows infinitely more spark than her overhyped work of the early Aughts. Still, I can think of at least a half-dozen female folkies who do what she does better than she does it.