LEWISTON – When the eagles started soaring overhead, you knew you were witnessing something special. It was as if they too wanted to indulge in Ray LaMontagne’s gorgeous wash of emotional sound. I couldn’t blame them.
Ray LaMontagne and his band – My Morning Jacket, minus singer/guitarist Jim James – played a lengthy, languorous and ultimately transcendent set at Artpark on Wednesday. This was deeply notional and immersive fare. If you came to chat and take selfies, you came to the wrong gig. This was music of subtle grandeur, and LaMontagne did the opposite of most frontmen – he worked hard to bring the crowd into his world, a decidedly mellow but just as decidedly intense space where his beautiful tenor served as reigning king.
LaMontagne started mellow, playing a solo acoustic mini-set on his own, and telling stories with understated and disarming charm. He confessed to hating his harmonica and recently swearing off ever playing it again. Then he played it, with a wistful elegance. “Jolene” came early and was well received by the large crowd. “Like Rock & Roll and Radio” was the first truly hair-raising tune. In this one, LaMontagne likens a relationship torn by alienation to the manner in which mainstream radio abandoned rock music to more testing pleasures. “Trouble” found the singer reaching for the grittier terrain in his vocal range, and brought a visceral response from the crowd.
Then LaMontagne brought out his full band, calling them “the jacket guys,” and without much in the way of fanfare, leading them into track on form for his most recent effort, “Ouroboros.”
This was when the show moved from gentle beauty to truly transcendent art-rock. “Homecoming” moved dreamily through its piano-led motif, with LaMontagne sounding at times like Art Garfunkel fronting “Dark Side of the Moon”-era Pink Floyd. Here, guitarist Carl Broemel made his indispensability apparent, playing gorgeous melodic tones and lending spot-on vocal harmonies.
LaMontagne and the band – bassist Tom Blankenship, drummer Patrick Hallahan and keyboardist Bo Koster – then proceeded to play “Ouroboros” in full. “Hey, No Pressure” was heroic blues of the first order, peppered with lush vocal harmonies and a sultry groove. “While it Still Beats” was epic and suffused with raw emotion. “Wouldn’t It Make A Lovely Photograph” was an elegy for – well, for so many things, among them the time (real or imagined) when art and commerce played nice, and great and onset art was also popular art.
Portions of the crowd appeared to grow restless as the evening wore on, possibly due to the sparse and subtle nature of LaMontagne’s art. This was surprising, because anyone who has heard the man’s music in the past must surely know that this is music of soft and virtuosic seduction, not bombast. More fool them. Wednesday’s show was profoundly great, a testament to the true power of dynamic, truly melodic music performed with dynamic agility and deep emotional investment.
The eagles understood.