Gig review: Ray LaMontagne at the Royal Festival Hall, London
Ray LaMontagne has known pop chart success, has a Grammy to his name, a big label behind him and he can fill the 2,500-capacity Royal Festival Hall for two nights in a row. But he’s done it without showing too many signs of compromise, and he’s not embarrassed to stand on a stage and tell his audience that while there’s nothing better than an old country song, “new country songs are shit – it’s just gross, makes you feel icky.”
LaMontagne’s voice is unique and very easy to listen to, and he has a strong set of songs available to him, both from his current album God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise and from his previous material. Except for a couple of rocking numbers, the show is a laid-back affair.
It’s also a little more countrified than LaMontagne’s recorded material – seen most clearly in his performance of “You Can Bring Me Flowers”, which LaMontagne told the audience he was performing the way the song was written rather than how it ended up being recorded. So maybe there were some compromises after all... The set also included the Merle Haggard song “Mama Tried”, as well as the country standard “I’ve Forgotten More Than You’ll Ever Know”.
LaMontagne is performing this year with the Pariah Dogs – the first formal, named band he has had. Still, despite his choice to stand not in front of them but in line with them and at the side, they had only general accompaniment duties, with little in the way of soloing going on. What’s more, arguably the highlight of the night was LaMontagne’s solo performance of “Like Rock & Roll and Radio”.
Standing at the end of a semicircle of musicians could be seen as a touching sign of modesty, but unfortunately, the result was that LaMontagne was far back on the stage and not really facing the audience. That sense of detachment was only amplified by a hat pulled well down over his face and his apparent reluctance to connect with the audience. When three songs had passed without him speaking a word _ the stage falling into blackness and silence for 30 seconds between each song _ members of the audience started shouting “Say hi”. Though he did finally acknowledge the shouts, he was far from chatty and did not react to further audience comments. The only conversation he had was with the support act, the Secret Sisters, when he invited them onstage to sing with him.
Also adding to the sense of detachment was the all-seated venue. The show would have worked better with a standing crowd at the front, thought it was nice to be able to enjoy music in comfort for once.
There were certainly things that an audience might have found disappointing about this show, but only to the extent that maybe Ray LaMontagne live doesn’t add an awful lot to what you get from a CD. What you get from both of them is an exciting songwriter with an extraordinary voice, taking risks and deserving his success.
The Secret Sisters – Laura and Lydia Rogers from Mussel Shoals, Alabama – take simplicity to its extremes. Strumming three chords on a single guitar and standing in one spot, they let their beautiful harmonies say everything that needs saying. Their authentic brand of traditional country has been wooing the critics everywhere. Still, some people may find them just a little too plain, and arguably they made a bigger impact singing Johnny Cash’s “Big River” with accompaniment from the Pariah Dogs.