In a time when it seems like any artist can record a moody song and have it appear on Grey’s Anatomy, it has become increasingly difficult to find folk singers that set themselves apart from the pack. However, Ray LaMontagne has done just that.
Over the course of two albums and the upcoming release of Gossip in the Grain, LaMontagne has established himself as a truly unique artist, writing tales of heartbreak and the ecstasy of love. The native New-Englander weaves his own brand of blue-collar mysticism with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a voice so soulful, it surprises many at first.
Much of the personality in LaMontagne’s songs comes from his complete openness in both singing and songwriting. His lyrics paint pictures of romance in the Maine countryside and of soul-affirming blue-collar labor — both semi-autobiographical — without resorting to the maudlin and shallow effects of a modern-day country song. Born in Nashua, New Hampshire, LaMontagne moved frequently while growing up, eventually settling down in Lewiston, Maine. He then worked in a shoe factory until the night he heard a Stephen Stills song on the radio, inspiring him to begin a career in music.
Alongside a full band, LaMontagne performed at the historic Chicago Theater last Wednesday, leaving no doubt that comparisons to Van Morrison and Stephen Stills are not unfounded. Known for his raspy voice and shy on-stage demeanor, the folk singer played off to the side, forgoing the attention of center stage. He opened the set with his new single, “You Are the Best Thing,” an Otis Redding-esque anthem, and followed-up with “Hold You In My Arms,” featured on the soundtrack for The Last Kiss.
The flawless sound system at the Chicago Theater was a gift considering LaMontagne’s incredibly expressive voice. Every guttural intonation was amplified clearly and maintained the intimate atmosphere present on his albums. This mood was especially evident when the band left the stage after a few songs, leaving LaMontagne alone. Bathed in blue light during “Burn,” LaMontagne rang out singing, “Oh Mama, don’t walk away. I’m a goddamn sore loser. I ain’t too proud to say.” The entire audience remained completely silent — expect for the occasional “Marry me” from female audience members to which LaMontagne simply replied, “But I don’t even know you.”
Known for obliging his fans, LaMontagne and his touring band returned to the stage for two encores, finishing his set with a lovelorn tale of rough times: “Jolene.” Listening in silence, the crowd burst into a standing ovation when the bearded singer had finished. Then with a bow and a wave, LaMontage left the stage and hundreds of satisfied fans. Not bad for a shoe factory worker.