courtesy of The Kansas City Star
Wednesday night, he and his band, the Pariah Dogs (featuring pedal steel master Greg Liesz), drew about 3,600 fans to Starlight, a sign he has graduated from the theater scene to larger venues. At times, however, this one – which holds nearly 8,000 -- nearly over-whelmed him.
LaMontagne is a soulful singer/songwriter who delivers the kinds of songs that require some listening, some contemplation. His writing style often evokes the country-folk sounds of “Harvest”-era Neil Young (“For the Summer”). Other times, he conjures the country-soul style of Arthur Alexander (“Hold You In My Arms”). When he reared back and ripped through the rock-blues romp “Repo Man,” he sounded a lot like Joe Cocker. Late in the show, when he unleashed the thunderous country/Delta blues rocker “Henry Nearly Killed Me,” he sounded like one of his peers, Ryan Bingham.
He would perform for nearly two hours, delivering 20 songs, including covers of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and the Byrds’ “Blue Canadian Rockies” that showed respect for his elders and influences but didn’t really elevate the mood. Both were too true, too paint-by-numbers.
Among the highlights: “God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, “ the title-track of his latest album; “Achin’ All the Time”; “Jolene”; and the entire three-song encore, starting with the breezy country tune “You Can Bring Me Flowers” and the finale, “Like Rock & Roll & Radio.”
LaMontange has a voice that belies his hippie/bohemian appearance. It’s gruff and cracked and wounded but deeply soulful and most affective when he’s singing songs about heartbreak and loss. His band was solid all night, too, whether it was storming through a heavy blues anthem or drifting through a folk ballad.
For the most part, the crowd was attentive and appreciative all night, applauding songs they recognized and yelling out requests. Up front, where I sat for about half the show, the vibe was intimate and warm. People were connected. In the back, things were different. After about an hour, the attentiveness waned, especially the farther you were from the stage, where things felt remote and the show became a purely aural experience.
Part of that can be attributed to short attention spans, which afflicts people in crowds at every show. Part of it is on LaMontagne, who isn’t much of an extrovert and who lets his singing do the talking. Plus, his music tends to cast similar moods, in varying shades and weights, so gradually, a sameness begins to set in.
In a smaller venue, all that would have mattered less. But in a place as large as Starlight, the connection to the performer – the humans on stage – can get diminished or lost. That’s especially the case when someone is singing songs as personal and intimate as LaMontagne’s. Funny how success can do that to a band or performer: Make them so popular, so big, they being to feel more distant, smaller.
Brandi Carlile: During her 45-minute opening set, she displayed the energy and personae of a headliner, someone who can fill a big venue with energy. She’s a blast to watch, and spontaneous. When she kicked over the drum after “Folsom Prison Blues,” it surprised even her.
Ray LaMontagne set list: Burn; For the Summer; Beg, Steal or Borrow; Hold You In My Arms; Repo Man; Achin’ All the Time; Mama Tried; Shelter; Devil’s In The Jukebox; Are We Really Through; New York City’s Killing Me; God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise; Blue Canadian Rockies; Trouble; Old Before Your Time; Jolene; Henry Nearly Killed Me. Encore: You Can Bring Me Flowers; Let It Be Me; Like Rock & Roll & Radio.
Brandi Carlile set list: Again Today; Dreams; What Can I Say; Same Ol’ You; The Story; Jackson/Folsom Prison Blues; Raise Hell; Forever Young.