Tuesday, July 19, 2005

guess who's back

"His voice sounds like he's underwater," my fiance said last night as we watched a slouch-shouldered Ray LaMontagne wrestle with his demons and a folky, soulful brand of blues last night at the Wiltern. And she had a point.

LaMontagne's voice--a gravelly, barrel-chested beast that wandered somewhere between a howl and a keening moan in a manner that's earned him comparisons to everyone from Van Morrison to Otis Redding. While those are the sort of hyperbolic words that can make any pragmatic listener (or at least this site) suspicious, his voice undenably carries a heft and history that's uncommon in the current pop universe, one that rises directly from the primordeal ooze of rock, R&B and soul, covered in Mississippi mud and Motown grime.

But whether its walking around with all that history trapped in his throat or the demons that have been dancing with him in his quiet(er) New England life up to this point, Ray's not in a good way. With Cat Stevens hair and eyes that seem heavy-lidded even to those in the balcony, the lanky singer-songwriter never wandered too far from the six inch circle in front of his microphone stand. Not that he was inanimate, far from it. His work-booted feet stomped occasionally, his head bobbed and, quite often, his back buckled under the burden of pressing a certain note out of his body with That Voice. While performing, LaMontagne gave every impression of someone who was in that moment, but not entirely comfortable with it. The few times he spoke his voice was so small and distant it was as if it was coming from someone standing three feet behind him, and that someone was probably six inches shorter, maybe twelve years younger and certainly very, very lost. I was left to wonder what happens somewhere in that thin frame, maybe buried deep in his chest, his throat or his beltline, to make that thin, back of the classroom voice become the stuff that's meant to echo against the grand theaters or dense wooded fields, filling as many people's ears as possible with the sound of pure heartbreak, love and soul.

LaMontagne wasn't perfect. His tempo alternately raced and dragged during solo peformances, his string section seemed unnecessary even to him (notably when, after introducing his rhythm section by name, he simply nodded their direction and added, "And the strings"), and his drummer was swinging as if trying to clear the left field wall at Fenway. But when measured against the glimpses of the ghosts buried in That Voice, these seem like quibbles. LaMontagne's demons may not allow him to be in the game for long--his pause before launching into his second song to rub his eyes and groan was more alarming than touching--but being exposed to his gifts even for a short while is something to be grateful and even excited for. One only hopes the owner of that small, wispy speaking voice can keep his head above water for just a little while longer.


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