Ray LaMontagne at the Woods at Fontanel (Nashville, Tenn. – July 25, 2014)
Ray LaMontagne writes great songs and makes great records. And that’s certainly no small feat. His live shows, though, while being technically and musically superlative, really don’t leave the audience with a whole lot to hang on to other than the technique and the music. There’s no personal engagement on LaMontagne’s part. It’s as if the whole thing is an absolute imposition, start to finish. Last time I saw him, he cussed a woman out for talking down near the stage. He, apparently, did the same thing a couple of nights ago, but threw in a twist — he walked off stage and wouldn’t return until the chatters were ejected from the show. And so it was with some trepidation that I entered the Woods at Fontanel with one of the most musically gifted friends I have as my +1.
After a moody start with “Gossip in the Grain,” LaMontagne and company (Dave Depper on keys, guitars and Zachariah Hickman on bass, along with the Belle Brigade’s Barbara Gruska on drums and Ethan Gruska on keys, guitars) kicked up the trip with “Lavender,” a tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Jefferson Airplane record. Psychedelic graphics and sounds swirled through the air as the band nailed the opening cut from Supernova. To get the sound just right, Depper rocked a Rickenbacker and Ethan Gruska closed it out with an appropriately fuzzed-out guitar solo. My +1 approved: “It’s such a ’60s psychedelic vibe. Cool.”
Another new tune, “She’s the One,” sauntered by without much notice. But even just the opening strains of “For the Summer” met with approval from the crowd. During the chorus, it was all harmonies on deck — five voices rising in unison. When Depper didn’t quite hit what he was aiming for on his solo, the +1 noted, “Almost got it, man. I’ve been there.”
The crowd also appreciated the familiarity of “Supernova,” which is probably the closest thing to an actual pop song that we’ll ever get from LaMontagne. And that’s fine. For “Airwaves,” Barbara Gruska managed a spot-on replication of the recording’s sway-inducing drum part to support the song’s gentle, whisper-filled saunter and a long tail bass solo at the end. Sticking with new material, the band laid down some sweetly breezy harmonies — and a super-snappy snare — on “Ojai.” Once again, though, everyone on and off stage came alive for the funky, funky groove of “Repo Man.” Barbara stayed true to the spirit of the record’s drums, but made it her own, as well. Hickman got with it on the bass, too, and it was just good times all around. Even my +1 dug it: “That was the best one of the night.”
About halfway through “Smashing,” the +1 leaned over and offered, “It’s like Iron Butterfly or something.” When I pointed out that Depper had donned the Rickenbacker again, she added, “Oh, you don’t have to tell me. I heard it. I love it.”
Giving most of the band a little break, LaMontagne and Hickman teamed up for stunning acoustic duo versions of “Jolene” and “Trouble” from his first album, along with a tender rendering of “Like Rock & Roll and Radio.” The crowd was just absolutely wild for the old stuff. Easing forward in the catalog and in the psychedelia, the band threw down a reading of “Meg White” that could have been played on the radio next to a cut from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, replete with red, white, and black graphics and a “Seven Nation Army” riff tucked into the middle. Making our way through the trip-tastic “Julia” and the potently woeful “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise,” the +1 couldn’t help but notice that “half the set is girls’ names.”
We snuck out while the group milked the encore applause, figuring we’d miss maybe “Forever My Friend” and “You Are the Best Thing.” Unless I fell asleep or he snuck it into the encore, nary a cut from Till the Sun Turns Black made the cut. Still, it was, as expected, a technically and musically pleasing night. But I could have gotten those things from the records. I want more from a live show, but Ray LaMontagne just doesn’t have more to give.