Ray LaMontagne live in Central Park: or, the night I swooned over harmonicas
- Sep 28, 2011
In many ways, Ray LaMontagne is an archetype. Lumberjack New Englander brooding-type: beards, flannels, living on a farm, both stoic and quiet. Ray LaMontagne is the sort of dude that you just look at and know there's some shit that's happened in his life that he's not going to talk about.
But he goes beyond that - etching the experiences into the very grain of every song he writes. To be frank, dude writes some serious, gut-wrenchingly beautiful and emotive music. Like, ugly-cry-on-the-bathroom-floor business. He's a man's man that is going to build a log cabin without a single complaint about the hard work and then write an album about why you're his lifeblood and reason for existing. So it should come as a surprise to no one that his show at Central Park's Rumsey Playfield, we saw both sides of the fellow.
Ray LaMontagne is probably exhausted. He's been touring his band's latest effort ('God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise') for the entire summer. No doubt he's ready to go hang out on the farm with his wife and kids, and just kick it straight luddite-style - and in the beginning of the show, the road rash was obvious. After the crafty, upbeat fiddle work from kicked-up bluegrass openers the Punch Brothers, most musicians would seem downright plodding. Mandolins & fiddles crashed over the now-iconic chords of The Strokes' ‘Reptilia’ (a semi-old-is-new-again cover of the highest order), and many other songs in their hour-long set, keeping things upbeat and light as the sun went down. It’s a good thing that Chris Thiles' mandolin work was not lost post-Nickel Creek. If anything, the Punch Brothers have improved upon it.
In a quite unceremonious fashion (save for LaMontagne's jaunty hat), Ray walked on stage and began a slow, somewhat restless set. Opening with 'Burn' the hopes were high; you could feel the visceral reaction from the crowd as the song roared from within. However it was slow moving. The show picked up as Punch Brothers' Chris & Gabe returned for Merle Haggard's 'Mama Tried' - one of the few times LaMontagne spoke up during the night, to the surprise of no one, was to discuss his love of the Haggard record - and The Byrds' 'Blue Canadian Rockies' which also featured guitar work by Greg Leisz.
From there, the show took off with a delicate 'Are We Really Through?' As he coursed through, the words seemed too heavy for his throat - and barely muttered - for fear that the pain’s weight kill him in that moment. It was a soft moment among many, but one with particular poignancy as the final lines hung in the air. Additional highlights included 'New York City is Killing Me,' 'Joelene', and the never-thought-I'd-swoon-over-a-harmonica wonderment of 'Henry Nearly Killed Me'. (Ray should probably know that his harmonica playing & growling nearly caused me to have a ... reaction.) A show highlight, for sure. Encore finished with a solo take on 'Like Rock & Roll and Radio'.
Unfortunately, several audience members forgot that Ray LaMontagne was a singer-songwriter with some real deep-shit sorta feelings in his music. When he sang, nearly in tears at the thought of love and loss, the smattering of howls really took you out of that moment. Listen folks, when a musician is not only performing but happening to you, let the moment live - allow yourself and your fellow attendees to live and get lost in that moment with the musician. Some of us like to be carried off to the land of make-believe that Mr. LaMontagne's music takes us. So let us have that - don't spoil it because you're too much of a wiener to allow yourself a little emotional vulnerability.
Overall, the show felt like a match to the reluctant-to-arrive autumnal season: a bit antsy, restless, but once it got into the groove, a comforting sigh of relief and beauty. Ray LaMontagne's voice is a cup of hot cocoa in front of a roaring, crackling fireplace after a drive on the backroads of rural Vermont in the fall with a person you are in serious, big-time like with. It is like crunching leaves beneath your feet, wearing your favorite scarf and eating just-made S'Mores. Pretty much ideal.