Ray LaMontagne – Carnegie Hall – November 26, 2012
It’s impossible to define who Ray LaMontagne is without mentioning his voice in the first sentence. It’s what makes his music so recognizable. It’s the first thing most listeners fall in love with, and it’s what makes his songs so wonderfully enchanting. It’s as though all the edges of his voice have been sandpapered down smooth. That all of his songs are expressed through this rustic and raspy singing voice somehow makes them sound all the sweeter, more sincere. It also fills a space like Carnegie Hall beautifully.
Performing for a sold-out audience in the biggest city in the country, LaMontagne started off things with “New York City’s Killing Me,” a folksy damning of the sometimes callousness of the giant city we call home. It was a perfect way to transition the audience from the noisy world outside Carnegie Hall into the hushed tenderness of LaMontagne’s music. With just an acoustic guitar and backing bassist, this tour marks the first time in a while that LaMontagne’s been without his band, the Pariah Dogs. The stripped-down versions of his songs, both old and new, allowed for the few elements holding together the music to fill the hall. Despite minimalist sound, the show swung to both sides of the dynamics spectrum: Quieter songs like “Sarah” sounded like they were sung as a whisper, like LaMontagne was letting in the audience on a delicate secret. The way such gentle songs contrasted to louder moments, like the pleas in “Trouble,” made such songs sound like the work of another artist entirely.
Last night’s show came with some surprises. LaMontagne played an unreleased song from his first record, Trouble, a self-described Western epic inspired by the late Townes Van Zandt’s “Poncho & Lefty.” For the second half, LaMontagne brought out a special guest, Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, whose high harmonies floated majestically above LaMontagne’s own voice. Someone in the audience actually shouted “Freebird!” when LaMontagne stepped out for his encore, to which he responded while laughing: “In these hallowed halls some motherfucker yells ‘Freebird.’” He didn’t play the tune, but just about every other song of his was covered, and magnificently at that. —Dan Rickershauser