Last Night: Ray LaMontagne at the Nob Hill Masonic Center

Categories: Last Night
Joseph Schell
Ray LaMontagne
Nob Hill Masonic Center
Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009

Better Than: Breaking up then making up.

Ray LaMontagne's first few chords were barely audible behind the crowd's hooting and whistling, his figure obscured by shadows under a lone, blue spotlight. By the time he approached the mic after playing three consecutive songs with no introduction, the eager crowd had mellowed under the spell of LaMontagne's signature gravelly vocals and soulful lyrics. And right when everyone had just about given up on hearing any pillow talk, LaMontagne gave audience members what they had been waiting for: "Nice to see ya," he said. "How are you? By this point I better say something, or else you'll start to resent me. I don't want resentment ... not so early in our relationship."

No matter how many times they had listened to his heartbreak-saturated albums, this crowd may not have been prepared for such an intense live relationship. Although songs on LaMontagne's most recent album, Gossip in the Grain, feature a lively back-up band, for last night's performance, he stepped on stage solo, songs stripped bare to just guitar and vocals. LaMontagne even went so far as to warn fans about the song that would sound most strikingly different live, performed with out a back-up band. He said he thought "You are the Best Thing" needed a lift for the album, even though he originally wrote the song in the much sparser, slower form that he sang last night. 

Joseph Schell
But LaMontagne mixed up his set with quite a few songs from his older albums, like "Shelter and "Sarah," and of course, "Jolene," which he said had been dubbed by Elvis Costello as his signature song (Costello said his own signature song is "Alison" because it still reliably draws new fans). LaMontagne added that he had the opportunity to "fuckin' rock out" with the OG singer-songwriter on Costello's TV show, Spectacle. If he makes the cut, he'll be appearing on the show soon along with John Prine and Lyle Lovett. Watching Costello play up close and personal, he said, was definitely something on his "list of things not to forget." 

Joseph Schell
Gushing about Costello was just about the only banter a very patient LaMontagne fed to a very impatient, sold-out crowd. Sometimes it seemed that as LaMontagne became increasingly calmer, tuning his guitar or just pacing slowly around the stage between songs, the crowd became more restless. "Play Hannah!" They shouted. "Barfly!" "Three More Days!" "Play whatever you want!" "You look great!" LaMontagne responded politely when he felt like it ("I only look great because you're 60 feet away from me," he said, peering into the dark. "You look great too!"). But it was only when one member of the crowd shouted "Freebird!" that LaMontagne finally cracked: "How many thousands of concerts have you been to where someone shouts 'Freebird'?" he said. "And still you laugh. It's just not funny."

LaMontagne did not play "Freebird," no matter how many times crowd members shouted it, but he did play a wide selection that spanned all three of his albums. The Maine-based musician has come a long way from his days working in a shoe factory -- he reportedly quit his job there to pursue a career in music after inspiration struck while listening to a Stephen Stills song on the radio. After hearing LaMontagne play last night, we're pretty sure it was just about the smartest career move he could have made.

Critic's Notebook

By the way: The Masonic Center was a fittingly intimate venue for the acoustic show, which featured a host of voices deserving of the highest quality sound. Due to the unforeseen nightmare that is parking around Nob Hill, I missed the very first show opener, Lauren Shera, but caught the end of the second opener, an Illinois-based singer-songwriter named Lissie. She quickly won me over with her soulful lullabies that included the happy birthday song--with the monkey ending (i.e., "you look like a monkey, and you smell like one too") for a young relative.

Personal bias: This was my first time seeing a show at the Masonic Center. Next time I will a) ride my bike and b) remember to dress like I'm going to the opera.

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