Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Tabernacle welcomes Ray LaMontagne and his band of followers

Let me start off by saying that This Girl has seen many shows in her day. MANY shows. I have discovered favorite bands while seeing them open up for the artist I actually came to see, and I have been severely disappointed by favorite legendary artists, never to be seen again. So listen to me, and listen good, because I will only say this once. Biasly, Ray LaMontagne is the greatest show you will ever attend. Unbiasly, Ray LaMontagne is the best show you will EVER attend. There are so many words to describe this remarkable display of unmistakable talent and soul capturing passion that I am at a loss at where to try to begin and explain the experience that is Ray LaMontagne; live and flawless.

The Tabernacle in downtown Atlanta is neighbor to tourist staples such as the CNN Center, Georgia Dome, Phillips Arena, and Centennial Olympic Park. It colorfully painted walls, ceilings, and floors provide wonderful views of the stage no matter where you choose to sit in the usually unassigned seats. This particular Saturday, however, chairs were unfolded on the usually open floor, and the balcony seats were already chosen for the ticket holder. Everywhere you looked, couples were being asked to return to their purchased seat, as many tried to squeak their way into lower seats, hoping that their owner somehow didn't make it to the concert. You could see people engaged in conversation, all the while keeping one eye on the stage, afraid they were going to miss one note of the raspy voiced singer/songwriters voice. The beer lines were short, and everyone was in their seats by 8:59 p.m. You could cut the anticipation with a knife.

As the lights dimmed, the crowd exploded with simultaneous loud applause and hushed screams and Ray LaMontagne appeared with his band of 4 behind him. The musician hails from the backwoods of Maine, and his physical aesthetic echos the stereotype. He is tall and lean, with a heavy beard, and dressed in what look like old jeans and a well worn flannel shirt that makes him seem like a skinny lumberjack. The entire scene makes LaMontagne seem as if he was greeting you on the porch of a log cabin, snow all around, with a hot cocoa (or hot whiskey) in hand for your tastebuds instead of coming out on stage. And then he starts to sing.

Oh God, the singing. The first few notes that break through are from You Are the Best Thing, which is the first single from LaMontagne's third album Gossip in the Grain. He is best known for writing songs about wearing your broken, battered, and bloody heart on your sleeve. This song, however, is the most upbeat of any Ray song on any album. When he finishes, the crowd errupts in a frenzy of hand clapping, whistles, and cheers. You would have thought they had more than 4 days to listen to the new album, as it was released only the Tuesday before the show. LaMontagne continued with the more acoustic Hold Me in Your Arms, and the fans sang right along with the performer. Nothing about LaMontagne screams pop star, but you wouldn't know it by the audiences' reaction of several 'I LOVE YOU, RAY!' and 'PLAY JOLENE!'. He seems not to notice as he stands still, stage left, guitar in hand.

The musician's stage presence is nothing if not un-memorable. He doesn't move around a lot or speak to the audience inbetween songs. Actually, LaMontagne keeps his eyes closed the entire time he's performing. That being said, you can hear every single enunciation, every voal inflection, everytime he crosses his t's and dots his i's when he sings. It makes you wonder if closing his eyes doesn't transport him into a world of absolution, where every syllable is indefectible.

LaMontagne continued on the journey of a mountain retreat by playing Empty, a hollow and painfully beautiful song from his sophmore album Till the Sun Turns Black. The song is sung in what sounds like a loud whisper, and insantly it seems as if he's playing only to you by a campfire outside his log cabin, with only a wool blanket and warm lyrics to fend off frostbite. With no dialogue inbetween songs, LaMontagne launches into two new songs, I Still Care For You and Let It Be Me. The former is written like a love letter and played with instruments that melt together to create an audio orgasm, the latter rings as a last effort speech with ambiguous lyrics that can apply to any relationship in life.

Mixing up the pace of the show, Henry Nearly Killed Me (It's a Shame) is played next, and in the movie that is a Ray LaMontagne concert, Shame is the chase scene. It's high energy, bluesy melody forces toe tapping and the hint of a smile as every strum of the guitar is felt in the depths of your chest. If Shame is the chase, the Roses and Cigarettes is the climactic love scene with the songwriting perfection that is 'Oh roses and cigarettes/a pillowcase that remembers you/the scent of you still lingers on my fingertips/till I think I might go insane/when will I see you again?' Meg White is the most clever part of the show, as LaMontagne sings about a 16-year-old crush on the drummer for the White Stripes. The simple, rhyming lines seemingly fit into the emotionally complexity that is LaMontagne's songwriting. It is the sigh of relief in a show where the crowd holds their breath, as if to scare away a rare endagered animal.

LaMontagne nears the end his set with the sublimely bluegrassy feel of Hey Me, Hey Mamma and the underground jazz clubby You Don't Bring Me Flowers; each somehow reinventing a new respect for LaMontagne and his ability to create an atmosphere of music, not just an exceptional album. Expectedly, he ends the set with his radio hit Trouble and leaves the stage for a minute, only to return for the obvious encore. What's not so obvious, is the fact that he chose the Rod Stewart tune Stay With Me to open with. The oldie but goodie selection solidified any doubt that one might have of the musical range Ray LaMontagne might have, as he killed the song in such a way that Rod himself would be proud. After the familiar Three More Days, LaMontagne strummed three times on his guitar and quenched the audience with the water they were thirsting for: Jolene. Jolene was never a radio hit, was never made famous by a placement on Grey's Anatomy, or featured in a Jennifer Garner romantic comedy. It is the kind of song that comes on your iPod and makes you actually stop what you are doing, stop what you are thinking, and listen to the words. It forces you to rewind and listen again, it unwillingly becomes the single most passionate song you have ever heard from an artist. It is the moment in the show you wish to stay in forever.

There is nothing about the performance Ray LaMontagne could have done to make it better. The set list was in place and the musician got completely lost in the execution. The crowd responded to every song as if it were their favorite, and the token cover song was a crowning compliment to the original ditties. There is a reason Gossip in the Grain was number 3 on the Billboard charts the week in was released, and that reason is because even though listeners can be deafened by studio created pop acts and sampled hip hop tracks, real music lovers know a true gift to the ears when they hear it.

But That's Just This Girl Talking...