Photos by Dorothy Hong
When I got back from the Ray LaMontagne concert last night, I immediately told a roommate about my incredible experience. She instantly responded, "DID YOU KNOW THAT RAY LAMONTAGNE LIVED IN A LOG CABIN FOR 50 YEARS?" Well, obviously this isn't true as Ray isn't even close to 50 years old. It seems as though every person that loves Ray has his or her own idea of the Maine/Log Cabin backstory. And for that, I won't tell the truth to those of you who don't know. It adds to the mysteriousness and the experience of this incredibly gifted singer/songwriter. He is enormously unappreciated and for those of you that had some reservations about him because of his immediate college/Dave Matthews/Guster references, fear not. He's part Van Morrison, part John Lennon, part Joni Mitchell, and part Bob Dylan. How the hell could you go wrong with that?
Ray LaMontagne took the stage at Hiro Ballroom on New York's west side at about 8:30pm last night to a half seated/half standing crowd. Looking like an anorexic Grizzly Adams, Ray was accompanied at first by a three-piece string section, a bass player, a drummer, and John Medeski on keyboards. As soon as he played the first few seconds of the leadoff track, "Be Here Now," from his new album, Till The Sun Turns Black, I knew what he was up to. His voice was scratchy and dead-on and the lightly finger picked guitar part of "Be Here Now" sounded so quietly elegant, it was hard not to stare with your jaw dropped.
By the time Ray started "Empty" I was now 100% sure that he would be playing his new album in full. "Empty" has been one of my favorite songs of his for a while and I was incredibly happy when I heard the album version. I knew "Empty" from his Austin City Limits performance and he hits it perfectly on the new album. It features some of his best lyrics and seeing it live last night was a real treat. "Kiss me with that country mouth so plain" never sounded so damn good.
By the time the drumbeat of "3 More Days" had started, Ray had another guitarist, a horn section, and Medeski's Wurlitzer chops on stage. The crowd went nuts and Ray erupted into a jam that seemed to come straight out of a Van Morrison songbook. It was loud and heavy and was a perfect showcase of how Ray's voice can go from gentle and sweet to harsh and rough. He sounds like a guy whose voice has been through everything and traveled to depths of the earths. And you know what? It's probably true.
The rest of Ray's set went through its tearjerkers to its rockers. "Can I Stay" was Ray and the strings, "You Can Bring Me Flowers" was a rocker, and Ray's instrumental, "Truly Madly Deeply," was played twice as someone wasn't playing a right chord. Ray never said a word, other than the "1,2,3,4's" to start off a song, and looked genuinely frightened to be on stage. He's such an interesting character and puts so much of himself into his music that his audience is constantly cheering him on. It's not a cheer as if they're having fun. They're telling him he's doing a good job as if he's a frightened friend on stage for the first time. "It's going to be okay Ray, everyone loves you."
The true highlight of Ray's run through of the album was his John Lennon infused song, "Within You." The lyrics repeat, "War is not the answer. The answer is within you." It built itself up more and more with French horns, drums, chorus vocals, and strings, and by the time it was done, I was left speechless. Ray said, "Thank You" and left the stage.
He came back out for his encore and played three songs from his first album, Trouble - "Hold You In My Arms," "Shelter," and "Jolene." "Jolene" takes the cake each time I put on that album, and each time I've seen Ray previous. It was a perfect way to end the night and thank the audience for being such good "friends." Ray finally spoke and said, "I'll See You Around."
Go buy his new album and his old one and anything else you can get your hands on. If you don't like it, you can come find me. No need though, I promise.