It was Stephen Stills's song "Treetop Flyer" that made Ray LaMontagne quit his job working the night shift in a shoe factory and become a singer. That's worth saying before anyone dubs this beardy Sixties throwback "the new Bob Dylan", along with Conor Oberst and a hundred other doe-eyed boys.
In LaMontagne's blinding 90-minute set, Stills is everywhere: in the waltzing folk ballads, in that trademark kick on the off-beat, in that haunting, syncopated phrasing.
But LaMontagne is his own man. He walks on stage as if he is playing to an empty room, white shirt unbuttoned and shoulders stooped. There is a palpable shock in the crowded room when he bursts into the opening number, a jittering, intense rendition of "Belong to Me". And he doesn't stop to catch breath before launching into the tender anti-war singalong "Hold You in My Arms", with Chris Thomas's double-bass solo lending gravitas to the simple, repetitive melody.
LaMontagne has released only one album, but he seems to have a huge repertoire: this performance is anything but a straightforward run-through of Trouble. But there are, naturally, some crowd-pleasers in there. "Love is Around Us" is delivered at about half the speed of the album track, with a sincerity that belies the fact that LaMontagne must have played the tune a thousand times. The whole ensemble comes to a standstill before the chorus kicks in, and there's a satisfying range and depth to LaMontagne's husky sound.
The highlights of the evening, though, come near the close of the set. In "Jolene" we are given a darting, up-tempo plea from the heart, with unusual, hypnotic phrasing. It is also a showcase for LaMontagne's unexpectedly dry wit. He croaks: "A man needs something he can hold on to/ A nine-pound hammer or a woman like you," and there is a collective murmur from the crowd. The intensity is sustained through "Forever My Friend", a track which is wound up with an improvised coda that sounds like Marge Simpson scatting.
And then we're into "Trouble", the huge, trademark LaMontagne tune, which is belted out like it has never been sung before. The singer's head tilts back as he slides on to "I've been saved by a woman", as if he is throwing the song at the audience. The encore set, too, contains some unexpected delights. LaMontagne finishes with the quietly erotic "Darling Is This Love?" with its opening chords like a French fairground attraction and its half-naive, half-adult lyrics. It is the perfect end to a varied, passionate set.
Ray LaMontagne is very much the product of his influences - but then, where would any musician be without them? And, in following the example of Stills, he's moulding himself into an impressive, nuanced performer. It is clear, too, that the LaMontagne image, while not sculpted by industry professionals, is perfect. His beard is bushy and sincere; he lives in a wood cabin; he had a bona fide folk-rock epiphany.
You can be a little sniffy about his guitar playing, with its workaday chords and not a hint of a solo line. His intonation, likewise, can be a little off. But you would cross continents to hear him roar a high note.
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