Ray LaMontagne, The Strathmore, Washington, DC- 10/14
Ray LaMontagne took the stage dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots. He has a big beard. His band could have just walked off the stage backing up Neil Young at any point in the seventies. The band was set up in a semi-circle, facing not so much each other as a hole in their line-up. Although the crowd was there to see Ray, there was no one front and center. The Strathmore is a gorgeous, and perhaps perfect, setting for the show that took place here this night. There was not a bad seat in the sold-out house. The only back drop was a huge, velvety curtain that changed colors with the thick, lush lights. No one spoke over Ray, although people occasionally yelled out to him between songs. It was a big venue for such an intimate show, but then his is a big voice, a personal voice, a voice made to rule the day.
His is a voice beyond his years. His is a voice that calls to be heard. It is a mighty wind and a fragile stream and it soothes something deep down inside the listener. It fills the corners of the room, it reminds you of something familiar, yet not quite known.
He played simple guitar parts over a solid band consisting of Bauhaus bass and drums, a keyboard player and a utility man that throughout the night switched off seamlessly between electric and acoustic guitar and a pedal steel. Occasionally, Leona Naess, his support for the tour, joined him and sang very subtle harmonies over choice chorus lines. Occasionally his bass player or his drummer sang along. Usually he sang alone. His voice conjures the image of Ritchie Havens, his soul, that of Nina Simone or Billie Holiday. He has a blues rasp that he uses in his own way.
He opened with “You Are the Best Thing.” Throughout the night, which consisted of one long set, and two solid encores, he played “Burn,” “Shelter,” and “Trouble,” along with a slew of other originals. You can always tell a musician has real fans when they get excited about a song before the singer sings word one. It was even more so with Ray. He would play two notes on his acoustic, the band had not yet come in, and people knew what was coming.
At times the band left him to play for us alone. At times, he was backed by a strong, Nashville country band, at other times, he pulled out his Memphis blues, replete with his keyboard player blowing a mean harp over top of his rasp. At one point, him and drummer Ethan Johns did a beautiful duet, Ray finger picking his acoustic and Ethan playing along on an oversized ukulele.
Ray rarely spoke throughout the show, occasionally thanking the audience or sparsely introducing the band. Once or twice, he responded to his fans yelling out their love for him. For the most part, a song would end, and there would be silence on stage. The band would look at each other, Ray would count it in, and they would move on to the next song on the setlist. At first it struck me as awkward. But as the night wore on, it dawned on me that, while he may be shy, there was something bigger going on. It seemed that he did not want to break the magic. When he spoke he was but a man, but when he sings, he is something much bigger, a voice for his generation.