Ray Lamontagne at the Tabernacle 10/18/2008

I’ve seen Ray twice before.  Both times in San Francisco.  The first one was after his first album, the second after his second.  I’ll spoil the surprise – the first one was the best.  This is true of the shows and the albums.

Leona Naess Opener

We got there a little late and only heard a few songs.  They didn’t make much of an impression because the venue was still really loud with audience chatter.  It’s a shame because I was curious to hear her.  She wound up singing backup on a few songs for Ray, and her voice was great.  Towards the end of his set Ray gave her album (“Thirteens”) a very strong endorsement, so I bought it and I really like it.  Makes me even more upset I didn’t see more of her set.

…On to Ray

Ray takes the stage with a 5 piece band (keys, drums, bass, pedal steel guitar/regular guitar, and Ray on guitar).  They open with “you are the best thing” – the first track off the new album.  Even though the horns parts were played on the keys, it was a great opener.  The moment Ray started singing, I felt like I remembered why I was so very impressed the first time I saw him.  His voice is so powerful and so distinctive that you can’t help but feel impressed.  You can’t help but feel like it’s a treat to get to hear him sing.  Clearly the first impression was a good one.  It was also interesting that Ray sets the band up in a semi-circle, with himself in the front of stage left.  I get the impression he’s just too humble of a guy to play in the center and have the band behind him.

Ray speaks to the crowd very little, but that suits him well.  After a handful of songs he says “it’s great to see you all… and that’s all I’ve really got to say.”  He later introduced the band, plugged Leona’s album and thanked everyone.  That’s about all he said for the whole show.

He played some great songs, but he also played a lot of new stuff and LOTS of mellow stuff.  Even with a voice that compelling, it’s hard to stay engaged when there is that much mellow material.

Venue Flaws:

First the good – this was a seated show, and that was a good choice by the Tabernacle.  With the music as mellow as it was, it would have been torturous to stand for the whole show.

And the Bad – The first problem is that this venue is bigger than ideal for a guy like Ray.  You need the right mood to get into his sound, and the size of the venue was counter-productive to creating the right vibe.  The main problem is that the crowd wasn’t quiet.  Especially once he started playing a bunch of mellow stuff, he lost people and they started chattering and it only made things worse.

The other mood killer was the fact that the venue has bars on either side of the main seating area.  While the lighting was otherwise dim and conducive to the appropriate mood, the beer fridges at the bar were ridiculously bright and really illuminated the main room way too much.  Maybe I’m just being picky, but it really annoyed me.  See my brilliant illustration below:

The black circle is where our seats were, the soundboard is to the left, and the stage is at the top.  It’s easy to see how annoying the light from the beer fridges would be.

The Gems

While I may have some complaints about the show, there were some magical moments.  He played “burn” in the middle of the set, and “Jolene” as one of the encores.  These songs are just mesmerizing – they are what every kid who ever picked up an acoustic guitar hoped he might someday be able to write.  And performed live, he absolutely captivated the crowd.  Some people yelled out stuff like “I love you” during the songs, and it kind of ruined the mood, but not too much.  These songs alone made the price of the ticket worth it.  These songs also afford that he could put out 5 more albums weaker than his first and I’d still consider him a really impressive songwriter.

He also played “Trouble” and it was met with rowdy appreciation from the crowd.

One thing I noticed while he was playing “Meg White” off of the new album – the drums are very uncharacteristic for Ray, but they are EXACTLY the kind of drum beat Meg White plays on almost every White Stripes song.  I don’t think that is a coincidence.  Maybe I’m dim for not realizing it right away, but I thought that was kind of clever.

He finished with “all the wild horses” – beautiful, but a bit of a downer to end on.  Overall the show was only pretty good, but the high points were extremely high.  I’d definitely recommend seeing him if you get the chance, especially if it is at a more appropriate venue.

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