By Spencer Wilking
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A year ago I had a conversation with Ray LaMontagne, the popular folk-soul crooner who's from Maine and wears a beard that proves it. He told me about recording last year's Trouble in Los Angeles while his wife and two kids stayed behind in Maine. An ex-shoemaker, LaMontagne is an exceedingly sensitive fellow, so to provide himself with a "home away from home" in the midst of L.A.'s oily hustle and flow, he said he books the same room in the Best Western Hollywood Hills every time he's there. Solid rock-star advice, which I took next time I was in town. Place is a shithole.
This is not entirely surprising. Full of meditative tunes about seeking shelter from storms and being saved by women, Trouble sounds like the work of a flannel-shirted shaman, the kind of guy unruffled by pool algae or a broken shower head. And in a solo acoustic set at Town Hall a couple of Mondays ago, LaMontagne concentrated so hard on his strumming and singing that he had no space in his mind for trivial matters like stage patter or fan requests, which he ignored with an indifference bordering on hostility.
Fortunately, the raw beauty of LaMontagne's music redeemed his utter disinterest in onstage spectacle (not to mention his crappy travel agent skills). His big, scratchy voice, dampened slightly by the road, recalled Joe Cocker doing "With a Little Help From My Friends" in The Wonder Years, and LaMontagne's songs triggered the same automatic nostalgia that TV show did. Sometimes he replicated the performances on Trouble, as in "Hannah," a rambling duet in which opener Brandi Carlile stood in for Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. Other times he broke free from the album like the wild horses he mythologizes in more than one of his songs, in "Hold You in My Arms" ultimately sacrificing words to his grizzly-man growl.
The crowd, a mix of crunchy NPR types and boisterous college kids, did battle to prove who appreciated the spiritual lumberjack more. My vote: the hippie chick who embarrassed one lout by yelling, "Shut up, fratboy." Even ol' Ray got a kick out of that.
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