Over the past few years, my music tastes have undergone a slight evolution. Where I used to listen to music primarily for the beats, rhythms, and energy, I now find myself listening for songwriting and structure. Though great songwriting can be found in nearly any genre, I’ve drifted to folk and Americana traditions more than anything. This has led me to many older artists but also contemporary artists I’d previously overlooked.
One of these “newer” artists is Ray LaMontagne. A well-known singer-songwriter, LaMontagne has released seven well-received albums. Some of these are heavily indebted to folk and Americana, and some are decidedly not. On Saturday night, at the State Theater, he played a stripped-down, career-spanning set that highlighted his unique voice and stellar songcraft.
The opening act was Liza Anne. A singer-songwriter herself, she was accompanied only by her own electric guitar. She has a unique voice, which gives her songs a beautifully haunting feeling. She played older songs and newer songs, including selections from her latest album, this year’s Fine But Dying. Her dark sense of humor also went over well with the crowd. She was an excellent choice to open the show and set a great tone for the evening.
The first thing I noticed about LaMontagne’s set was that he wasn’t alone. This confused me a little bit, as the show was billed as a “solo acoustic” show. I was pleasantly surprised, however, that his onstage companion was none other than Wilco bassist John Stirratt.
Stirratt, playing an electric bass, would prove to be an able and ideal complement to LaMontagne’s acoustic guitar work. While neither played anything too flashy, they created interesting textures to accompany LaMontagne’s fine songs.
The other thing that really stood out to me initially was LaMontagne’s voice. While it’s always been his signature, it was a thrill to hear live. Raspy and weathered, his voice fits the songs very well.
The songs themselves were great. This was expected, given his reputation, but there is something special about seeing such a talented songwriter live. The songs took on a new life in the stripped-down setting, and the intimacy the venue provided was an ideal fit.
He played from every part of his catalog, from 2006’s folk-rock leaning Trouble, to his recent Part of the Light. His more recent work intrigued me the most, as much of his last three albums is devoted to more spacey psychedelic rock arrangements. I was curious as to how these songs would translate into this setting.
They turned out well, with newer songs like “Such a Simple Thing,” and “In My Own Way,” feeling perfectly at home alongside older favorites like “I Still Care for You,” and the soulful “Trouble,” which closed out the set.
As good as the new songs sounded though, there’s one song I was looking forward to hearing more than any other. That was “Jolene.” Not to be confused with the Dolly Parton song, “Jolene” is simply one of the finest folk songs of the 21st century. It’s profoundly heartbreaking, and, like many of LaMontagne’s songs, extremely well-written. The rare instance of an artist’s most famous song also being their best, LaMontagne saved it for the middle of a three-song encore. The sparse arrangement served the song very well, and it ended up being a moving moment in a show full of them.