Ray Lamontagne, Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow
He's a regular ray of sunshine
Wednesday 24 January 2007
The sound of Johnny Cash fades out, the lights die down and Ray LaMontagne walks out into centre stage with his band to a tide of affectionate applause. He doesn't say anything, just plugs in and plays, and the song he starts with - "Be Here Now" - is unerringly beautiful in its own muted, yearning way.
Everything that follows is similarly mesmeric. It's one way to tell a true talent, when they don't need to resort to misplaced bombast - when they seem to actively rail against it, in fact - and they can still hold you fixed with every sound they make.
With his lanky frame, down-home dress sense and thick beard, LaMontagne could have passed for the sixth member of The Band if he'd been born 30 years earlier. He might not, however, have fitted in with such a notorious crowd of hellraisers. Perhaps he couldhave passed for an even less garrulous version of Rich-ard Manuel, the sensitive one with the soft, high, plaintive voice.
Notoriously unforthcoming in interviews, LaMontagne - born Raycharles LaMontagne in New Hampshire in 1974, a name which suggests his parents may have taught him a little about music - is the very definition of a man who lets his music do the talking. In between a couple of the early songs, a desperate fan shouts, "Say something!" Later, a pleading voice prompts from the gallery, "Good evening, Glasgow!" LaMontagne ignores the bait. He clears his throat, the bristles of his beard twitch and he plays another song.
It's eight songs in before he decides it's time for a hello. "It's very nice to see you," he all but whispers. "We're very glad you came." Then he introduces his band, and his quietly personable way is almost much-needed reassurance that he isn't some sort of semi-autistic musical polymath. For make no mistake, Ray LaMontagne is one of the most effortlessly gifted people you'll see on a stage.
That's not even strictly in a musical sense, although he does write appealing and textured country-rock songs which are a throwback to the glory days of people like Neil Young, Gram Parsons and The Band themselves. They riff on time-honoured themes of love, hope and regret, and they have this hard-to-place appeal that's at once time-worn and comfortable.
"Be Here Now" and the following "Empty" are built around LaMontagne's strumming and some softly pealing pedal steel guitar, with a shuffling drumbeat and an unobtrusive bassline in the background. His rich, whispery vocals set the scene as he implores us "don't lose your faith in me".
Then, three songs in, the sheer majesty of that voice hits. It's during "Barfly", where the pace has picked up from a shuffle to a canter, and LaMontagne is softly singing the story of a bar-bound drunk who hasn't yet figured out love. As the chorus hits, his vocals ascend into a rasping, anguished yell that's shocking in its power, stirring everyone who was surely settling into the gentleness of the show. How to describe it? Picture Tim and Jeff Buckley, alive today and duetting in concert, and then imagine all your expectations of such a spectacle fulfilled.
From there on in, no one could have been unconvinced about the fact they were hearing a star. LaMontagne gives us bitter romance with "Lesson Learned" and "Burn"; a rumbling, homesick update of "Twenty-Four Hours to Tulsa" in "Three More Days"; and a just brilliant cover of George Harrison's "Behind That Locked Door". The brand new "You Are the Best Thing That Has Ever Happened to Me", with voice and guitar only, was an understated highlight.
Had a lesser singer been in command of such songs, it still should have been a good show. With an undeniable voice like LaMontagne's, it was a rare and unqualified triumph.
Touring to 8 February ( www.raylamontagne.com)
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