Seeing Ray LaMontagne the first time was pretty dang incredible. It was early 2005 and I had just experienced the beginnings of my slow musical rebirth (snatched from the jaws of grownup musical apathy) through his groundshaking Trouble. I listened to it non-stop, feeling like something I had been missing out of music was slowly being diffused back into me. The rough-hewn beauty of the music, the incisive daggers in his lyrics, and most of all that unbelievable voice — it all felt so raw and beautiful. I went to see him at the Fillmore in S.F., and as I wrote:
“This skinny guy comes walking out on stage, looking as uncomfortable as all get out. Big beard. Quiet voice. Hiding behind his guitar. I almost thought he was going to bolt.
But then he opens his mouth and begins to play.
He has this vulnerable, raspy, velvety, pure voice, and he absolutely pours his soul into his music . . . He feels each word and resonates with each chord.
[One] non-album track that I remember vividly from the show is “Can I Stay.” He ended with this song. The venue went still, as if we were all transfixed in the moment, like you could almost feel the song hanging there above our heads. The spotlight shone on him, with the dust motes swirling in the heavy air. Absolutely beautiful song. I almost felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
On Monday night, I made the long drive up to Boulder for my fourth time seeing Ray. As jaded and cynical as I sometimes worry that my little critic’s heart is becoming, wouldn’t you know it – it happened again for me. The chills and the lump in the throat. Several times. The potency and passion still lives in Ray’s music, and I was so glad to meet up with it again.
Dressed in the same plaid shirt/jeans/workboots ensemble of his Maine roots, Ray is really hitting an amazing stride and finding his subtle confidence as a performer. Instead of feeling bad for even looking at him on-stage, as I sometimes did that first night, Ray now exhales a quiet sense of purpose, a level of comfort as he melds with his backing band, and occasionally a wickedly funny streak. (One gal in the crowd yelled out that it was her birthday, 26. Ray first claimed not to remember that long ago in his life, and then he thought for a moment and pensively but determinedly said, “Now I said I didn’t know what I was doing at 26, and that’s not true. I was getting stoned, that’s what I was doin’”).
Ray’s set skillfully wove his older material together with the bigger, brighter, shiner songs from his new album Gossip In The Grain. From the robust opening notes of “You Are The Best Thing,” to the rocking blues of his ode to Meg White (while the stage was saturated in a very White-Stripesy crimson light), it was exciting to see this different side of him bloom. The country flavor ran deep, with pedal steel replacing the elegant strings on songs like “Shelter.” Songs were laced through with high and lonesome whistles, and harmonicas unbounded like a runaway train.
I was nothing short of captivated, that he could still move those puzzle pieces around inside me. In a moment, Ray’s music conjures up a hard-working world of faded wood cabins on the plain, country dresses, and going home at night exhausted to someone who really loves you. There may be some cornbread involved, maybe a passel of children. All that flashed through my mind (and I thought about various Steinbeck books I’ve read) in the way he sang the line from Empty about, “kiss me with that country mouth so plain.” Overactive constructs, perhaps, but I loved it nonetheless in its simplicity, and in his absolute gut-wrenching conviction. He still doesn’t sing songs as much as they are yanked out from his insides.
Since you all already know that I’m a sap sometimes, I’ll totally cop to crying on his solo acoustic version of “Burn.” I didn’t expect that. It was very much like this video from a few days prior, and just bleeding raw and damn gorgeous:
A guy in the balcony said it best when he yelled out during one of the many quiet moments of guitar tuning between songs: “You sound good, Ray!”
And good it was. Very good.
You Are The Best Thing
Hold You In My Arms
Let It Be Me
I Still Care For You (with Leona Naess)
Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s A Shame)
Burn (solo acoustic)
Winter Birds (solo acoustic)
Hey Me, Hey Mama
You Can Bring Me Flowers
3 More Days
Gossip In The Grain (with Leona Naess)