Ray LaMontagne's Pop Goes the Folksinger: Concert Review
The reclusive, bearded, Grammy-winning tunesmith explores his psychedelic '60s side in a sacred setting.
Last time we saw the soft-spoken New England native Ray LaMontagne, he was accepting a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album for his 2010 release, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, cementing his reputation as a mysteriously reclusive singer-songwriter type.
Taking the stage at the stunning Cathedral Sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian church on Wilshire in Koreatown, built in 1929 with its impressive Victorian renaissance, Gothic revival architecture and imposing 80-foot vaulted ceiling and steeple, LaMontagne has transformed himself into a ‘60s psychedelic rocker.
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Playing a set composed largely of songs from his just-released album, Supernova, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in a style that veers from the British Invasion to breezy SoCal country-rock, the retiring musician seems ready to explode like the disc’s title, complete with a head-scratching sponsorship from CitiBank. He’s fronting an impressive new band that includes opening act the Belle Brigade’s brother-sister combo of drummer Barbara and guitarist Ethan Gruska (whose father is movie/TV composer Jay Gruska and grandfather the legendary Oscar-winning film composer John Williams), bassist Zachariah Hickman and multi-instrumentalist Dave Depper.
Framed by a pair of lit stained glass windows, LaMontagne takes the intimate stage with a feather literally in his cap, starting off with the title track from his 2008 album, Gossip in the Grain, before leaning into the first song on the new album, “Lavender,” which fully represents his new dreamy, ethereal sound, topped off with Ethan’s nifty acid-rock guitar solo. “She’s the One” has a funky feel, while LaMontagne’s shimmering falsetto gives “Pick Up a Gun,” with its sardonic lyrics (“I never want to see your face again”), a distinctly Neil Young feel, which recalls the fact he once gave up his job at a Maine shoe factory to become a musician after hearing Stephen Stills’ Manassas album.
The sacred setting forms an interesting counterpoint to the earthy material, though the immense height tends to swallow up some of the aural subtleties. “No Other Way” has a dream-like quality, with Depper’s tasty guitar solo providing the spice. “I’m all black and white like empty paper/Waiting for you to color me in,” he sings, the audience taking him up on his offer.
His first words are a terse “thank you,” though he loosens up later to reveal his new, higher-pitched singing voice – his earlier, rougher timber evoked comparisons to Van Morrison to Otis Redding – can be attributed to the fact he doesn’t drink anything stronger than lemonade these days. “Supernova” is a ‘60s pop nugget, with an irresistible sing-along chorus that gets the audience clapping in their pews. “I want you, be my girl,” he sings. “Zoe, you’re so supernova!” It’s another song about escaping small-town life, which is pretty ironic considering LaMontagne lives with his family in an 1830 farmhouse in the Berkshires in rural Massachusetts, that was abandoned for a half century before he restored it.
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There’s a Latin rhythm mixed in with whispered chants in “Airwaves,” while LaMontagne channels his inner “peaceful easy feeling” on “Ojai,” a song that sits comfortably alongside the likes of “Take It Easy” and “Long May You Run.” There’s a twangy country feel to the Grammy-nominated Song of the Year “Beg, Steal or Borrow,” delivered neatly by Depper’s picking, while the new “Smashing” and his tribute to White Stripes drummer “Meg White” both have a psychedelic Beatlesque feel, the latter combining a Clash-like martial beat with Beach Boys harmonies and a nod to the “through the looking glass” dreamscape of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
With his keening, high-pitched vocals, LaMontagne can’t help but channel the Fab Four on “Julia,” which also shares a garage-rock beat with Them’s garage-rock classic, “Gloria,” before finishing with the Who-like strains of “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise.” “I close my eyes and I can feel you here,” moans Ray, “I’ll be home again before this time next year.”
For the encore, he cranks up his Springsteen-ish ode to lost adolescence, “Drive-In Movies,” perhaps the best song on the new album, in which he boasts, “I wanna be Brando in the Wild One/I wanna be somethin’ to someone… I spent all my childhood years, wishin’ that I looked like a movie star.”
He might not get that wish, but as he appeared in the spotlight for a solo turn, Ray LaMontagne looked more than ready for his close-up.
Gossip in the Grain
She's the One
Pick Up a Gun
For the Summer
No Other Way
Beg Steal or Borrow
God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise