The other week we went to see Ray LaMontagne perform in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. It was so good, just for a change, to sit and listen to music in a relaxed venue, rather than fighting with sweaty bodies and beer spillage in the Academy. We must be getting old!
The support act was Priscilla Ahn, a singer songwriter from Pennsylvania. You can have a look-see at her MySpace here, or her website here, which includes a blog of her European tour with Ray LaMontagne. Her set was beautiful. She plays the guitar and the harmonica, and sings simple and sweet melodies. Sometimes she plays recordings of her own voice, using a loop pedal, which gives her sound a layered, harmonious feel. Her songs have a human and honest quality. We could imagine her singing best in small, intimate venues, but the quiet and attentive audience at the Symphony Hall did her well.
Each song has a story. A particular favourite was ‘The Boob Song’, where she sings about finding a book of poems on her boyfriend’s bookshelves – inside the cover she finds the words, ‘I hope you like the poems, and that they remind you of my boobs.’ And understandably, she felt a little jealous: “will you think of me, and not some other girl’s boobs!”
The main criticism that can be levelled at Ray LaMontagne, on the other hand, is that his songs and performances lack a sense of humour. Even those few songs in which he allows himself the glimmer of a smile – such as Meg White from his latest LP, ‘Gossip In The Grain‘ – manage in execution to sound deadly serious.
This is, though, a symptom of Ray’s great strength – the depths to which he feels his songs. On record, particularly the two which followed his rip-roaring debut ‘Trouble‘, LaMontagne’s voice is often restrained, but live he lets loose – and, more to the point, the audience is able to see the physical cost each performance of every songs seems to demand of him. Taciturn and unshowy, LaMontagne fully inhabits his songs, most of which have a darkness at their core. Songs like Let It Be Me, Jolene, and Empty came out raw and ragged, bruised but powerful. Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s A Shame) practically stormed the auditorium, all strident harmonica and defiance; Winter Birds was whispered out to a reverent hush. Each shared the same awareness of the spirit.
This preacher-like quality makes LaMontagne a thoroughly compelling performer, and he is smart enough to maintain his hold on the audience by choosing backing musicians who are magnificent without being obvious. At this show in particular, the pedal steel player was a revelation; but each member of the band formed a fluid, and at times playful, bed on which Ray could not so much lie as writhe. If there’s little room for giggles in LaMontagne’s music, it might be telling that the cheekiest moment of the show was when he and the band took the spiky You Don’t Bring Me Flowers and made into something entirely new, and entirely playful. The form? A honkytonk howdown. Roots Americana informs all that LaMontagne does, and though, particularly on his second album ‘‘Til The Sun Goes Black‘, clever production can reflect those roots oddly, each of his songs lies in folk, country, blues or jazz. Those strange reflections are perhaps where he is most interesting … but not always where he has most fun.
At any rate, even when Ray was sighing and groaning in simulated or actual distress, the Symphony Hall audience had a smile on its face the whole time. Kudos.
And Priscilla Ahn? Her boyfriend threw away the poems, and they have since been happy ever after.