Ray LaMontagne – Iron Horse (Northampton, MA)
Ray LaMontagne was whispering. He was between songs, telling a story about a coffee shop he likes in Los Angeles and this woman he saw there who inspired a new song. The riveted audience members were literally on the edges of their chairs, cocking their good ears toward the closest PA speaker, reading lips, desperately trying to hear the details of LaMontagne’s tale.
But the reticent songwriter was just about inaudible. It was an early date on his first big tour, and he didn’t quite have the banter thing down. While sharing anecdotes, he was quiet and noticeably shy, rubbing his hand nervously through his hair. He appeared genuinely bewildered that people would be hanging on his every word. But they were.
When LaMontagne sang and played his acoustic guitar, things became instantly more comfortable. Though his eyes were closed much of the night, he raised his chin and belted out songs from his stunning debut album Trouble. The mesmerized audience no longer had to strain to hear him.
The musical setting was stripped. For half the night, it was just LaMontagne on acoustic guitar and occasionally on harmonica. The simply structured songs allotted plenty of room for his gritty, soulful vocals. On “Burn”, you could hear the building pain of a rejected lover as LaMontagne’s raspy voice soared and dropped dramatically along the way.
For the other half of the show, he was joined onstage by talented double bassist Chris Thomas. It was a beautiful but odd accompaniment choice. LaMontagne had been casting doubt in interviews about the Van Morrison comparisons he’s been getting, but Thomas’ jazzy, walking acoustic bass instantly evoked shadows of Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
The bass added artful dynamics. This was noticeable right away on “Hold You In My Arms”; the dancing bass lines made you forget about the missing lead guitar and surging strings that decorate the recorded version. On “Narrow Escape”, the woeful tale of a criminal on the run and the woman who loved him, Thomas’ inventive bass parts compensated aptly for the missing vocal harmonies and the driving drums.
Strangely, Thomas was off the stage for strong songs such as “Hannah” and “Jolene” that could have benefited from a little extra color. Overall, however, LaMontagne was impressive, and the appreciative overflow crowd gave him two standing ovations, bringing him back after a booming version of “Trouble” for a two-song encore of unreleased tunes.