Ray Lamontagne, Barbican, London

It's a shame about Ray's reticence

Tim Walker@timwalker
Tuesday 17 February 2009 01:00

What's the most sedate way to occupy oneself of an evening? Perhaps it's settling down to an episode of Midsomer Murders, or disappearing into the pages of a good book. Or perhaps it's spending an hour and a half reclining in the comfort of the Barbican stalls, watching a Ray Lamontagne show. Luckily, there's plenty of legroom.

This must be one of the politest gigs on the music circuit. Between songs, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter and his band are thrown into blackness, as if they're changing the scenery for a school play, and perhaps to prevent LaMontagne suffering any sort of interaction with the audience.

It has become a trademark trait of LaMontagne's to indulge in precisely zero banter with his fans, and tonight is no different. Thus the crowd is left to shuffle quietly in its seats between songs, with only the occasional mortifyingly uncouth heckler to break the silence. It seems rude even to clear your throat.

The singer finally opens his mouth for something other than a lyric when he appears to berate some poor fellow for creeping away to the loo in the middle of a quiet number. You rarely get the sense that LaMontagne is actually enjoying himself very much on stage. The same can't be said for his tight-knit touring band, all of whom seem entirely happy to be here.

Lamontagne's new album, Gossip in the Grain, is his most varied and textural collection to date, from the Motown brass of "You Are the Best Thing" to the Nick Drake-ry of "Sarah" and "Winter Birds", to the Ennio Morricone-meets-"Strawberry-Fields" stylings of "Meg White", which proves that he's a fan of The White Stripes, too. His set roars into life with the blues boogie of "Henry Nearly Killed Me (It's a Shame)".

The singer-songwriter, then working in a shoe factory, was supposedly inspired to pursue a career in music by a Stephen Stills song, and there's also a strong element of West Coast country rock to some of his own songs – the Eagles sometimes come to mind.

His songs are the sound of a grown man at the campfire somewhere in the American wilds – full of the imagery of his rural home in Maine, and of mature (and conspicuously heterosexual, with all those mentions of his "lady" or his "woman") relationships. Sung in his uniquely craggy, breathy timbre, they are timeless.

But while there are plenty of fantastic numbers in his repertoire, this set somehow turns half of it into anonymous filler. LaMontagne's voice is as remarkable as ever, he and his band's musicianship exemplary, and yet much of the show is unmemorable.

Perhaps it's his alienating shyness, perhaps it's the rather one-note instrumentation, or perhaps it's the civility of the venue, but it proves difficult to connect with this live performance any more than with LaMontagne's records.

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It's hard, for instance, to feel moved too deeply by what must be about his millionth rendition of the over-familiar "Trouble" (which is nonetheless a stone-cold classic). Presumably, each individual performance has ceased to mean all that much to LaMontagne, who must play the song every night, so why should we feel any different when he plays it in a version almost identical to the recorded one?

On the other hand, we get a great performance of the lesser-known but equally wonderful "Shelter" from his debut (also called Trouble), and a stunning, stripped-down "Jolene". The encore includes a sprightly rendition of "Three More Days" from his second album, Till the Sun Turns Black, as well as the new LP's title track, "Gossip in the Grain", a pastoral lullaby that becomes a haunting duet with the help of LaMontagne's support act, the singer-songwriter Priscilla Ahn.

Touring to 21 February ( www.raylamontagne.com)

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