"I'd like to dedicate this song to two heroes of mine: Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of The Band," says Ray LaMontagne on the stage of the biggest venue he's ever played before a moving version of "Bessie Smith", the group's tribute to the female blues singer of the Twenties and Thirties that has also been covered by Norah Jones.
And there I was thinking that, what with the facial hair sported by LaMontagne and drummer Ethan Johns and the free-flowing, easy nature of the music, we were drifting into Music From Big Pink territory.
When you factor in Stage Fright, the title track of The Band's third album, and the fact that the notoriously shy LaMontagne barely speaks to the audience and opts to stand stage right and face the other three musicians, it all begins to make sense. Especially as all this happens one hour in, just before the singer-songwriter with the raspy voice ends the set with his signature song "Trouble". Despite repeated radio plays and ghastly cover versions by American Idol contestants, "Trouble" has lost none of its power. "I've been saved by a woman," is a simple lyric, conveying a universal sentiment, but it's been enough to turn LaMontagne into an everyman artist.
It helps, of course, that his backstory is even more compelling than the struggles label-mates David Gray and Damien Rice went through on their way into the mainstream. In 1999, he quit a shoe factory job after hearing a Stephen Stills song on the radio, worked as a carpenter and still dresses like he's about to go out and chop wood.
LaMontagne looks like he's been saved by the love of a good woman, from God knows what as he refuses to elaborate in interviews, but the opening line of "Jolene" – "Cocaine flame in my bloodstream", this is definitely not the Dolly Parton country standard – the last song of the encore, hints at enough of a troubled past to give his lyrics added depth and meaning.
Listening to "Forever My Friend" or the ominous "Empty" – you are reminded of archetypal singer-songwriters like Van Morrison, in his Astral Weeks and Moondance prime, or the sweep of Tim Buckley's music. With a brass section helping turn "Three More Days" into a Muscle Shoals/Stax Records groove and adding to the mournful, Tom Waits-like "Gone Away From Me", LaMontagne is spreading his wings wider still.
The Beatlesque strings on the wondrous "Be Here Now" and the title track of his second studio album Till The Sun Turns Black turn the most mellow of encores into a dark night of the soul.Reuse content