Review + Photography by John Hayhurst

Hats off to Ray LaMontagne – He’s ‘Just Passing Through’ but calls in at Sheffield City Hall for an incredible intimate acoustic session.

He is an elusive beast this Ray Lamontagne, quick to hide and squirrel away back in his US home, never venturing too far away and therefore in the last 14 years I’ve not managed to catch a live performance ever, in fact he hasn’t even been on these shores for 7 years, despite releasing some stunning albums over that period. So, when this set of four or five intimate acoustic dates in the UK were announced, tickets were immediately requested, and it didn’t take long for all shows to be sold out.

Ray Lamontagne-2

I’m also taking the photographs at Sheffield City Hall tonight, and it seems this isn’t something granted by Mr LaMontagne very often, I’ve been allocated a 6ft diameter space to the extreme right of stage and behind the first block of seating. There is a personal security guard making sure I don’t budge an inch of extra space. I realise when the curtains are opened that he’s deliberately put me here so that I’ve only got a sideview, and as he’s wearing a cap – which he doesn’t take off till the end, I’m not going to get much of his face in the photographs, and definitely none with his eyes open.

The stage set up is very minimal, two rugs to stand on, two microphones and a table at the back for harmonica and drinks, that’s it! This isn’t a big lights and full psychedelic rock show, it is going to be an intimate performance with just Ray LaMontagne and his trusty bassman sidekick for this tour – John Stirratt from the band Wilco.

Freya Ridings-2

First though we have the London chanteuse that is Freya Ridings, she is very giddy as Ray LaMontagne is one of her favourite artists, and she gets to call him Ray. For Freya there is a link to Sheffield as she has relatives living here and used to reside here herself for a while. That endeared her to the crowd a lot, as she played some slow poignant ballads at the piano. Her style reminded me a lot of Hannah Reid from London Grammer, similarly able to bridge an extensive vocal range. She appears nervous when not singing and dedicates ‘You Mean the World to Me’ to her mother, it is a beautiful song.

Freya Ridings

Without fanfare or introduction, the lights dim, and two gents step out on to the sparsely lit stage. Ray Lamontagne dressed in very casual green shirt and jeans with a cap pulled tight over his head, ensuring that no one except the front row will be seeing much of his eyes tonight. John Stirratt on the other hand is bathed in a little more light and quite happy about it. The woops and cries are simply acknowledged with a nod from LaMontagne, and we open with ‘No Other Way’ from his ‘Supernova’ album. It takes the first line of this song for you to realise this will be a magical night, the vocal harmonies from Stirratt are pleasant, but that breathy sound that emanates from LaMontagne is like no other you will hear.

In some cases, he takes a breath between each word which only emphasises the whole lyric, and then particularly during the tail end of ‘Airwaves’ when he sings “Help Me, Help Me, Jump & Shout” it sounds like an other worldly language involving heavy gasping and panting. The Supernova album has its fair share of tracks played tonight, which is good because it’s one of the albums he has never toured in the UK.

Ray Lamontagne-4

Introducing John Stirratt he explains that John is the reason he is here tonight as he would rather play big audiences of 10-20,000 people where he can hide behind some big rock production. Stirratt talked him into doing some intimate acoustic shows after he loved watching Wilco do similar at the Fillmore in San Francisco. “So that’s why I’m wearing this” – he points to his hat, “Take it Off” someone shouts, “Take it all off” another slightly inebriated sounding female voice came from the darkness. “No, No, I can’t do that, I’d have to triple your ticket price” he retorts, showing a good sense of humour tonight, and contrary to other reports where he has been known to shout at his audience for talking during songs.

Ray Lamontagne-3

After that introduction LaMontagne only really stops to talk to explain the new songs from his latest album ‘Part of the Light’. First up we get ‘Such a Simple Thing’ which fits very nicely in this simple acoustic setting and later ‘To The Sea’ when he shows his apparent extreme nervousness by taking such a long pause in explaining how he has had more inspirational feelings when he is by the sea, because it makes him feel small, “and if I am small then… therefore my worries, problems and demons are small too”. The gap in that sentence felt like he was about to break down, instead rallying back with the clarification and then playing a great folk tune, which turned into the happiest song he would sing all night.

Ray Lamontagne-6

The tone of his voice is unique, it is doing him an injustice to say it’s a nice gravelly sounding male vocal, it is at times intense and full of passion, coming from somewhere deep inside. This man could sing a restaurant menu and make it sound like an incredible tale of love gained then lost, the sentiment and sounds are joined together displaying a kaleidoscope of emotions.

Without song intros it was left to the audience to greet the recognition of the opening strums of older tunes like ‘Beg, Steal or Borrow’ with huge applause, every time the cheering was accompanied with an “awwww” or, “Oh I love this one” from someone in the room. Old favourites like ‘Burn’ were just thrown out at the crowd and afterwards he would take a step backwards have a sip from a glass and then walk forward to start the next one. Each time you were hoping it was going to be your favourite next. Personally, mine is ‘Jolene’ (not the Dolly Parton penned tune) and after ‘Like Rock & Roll Radio’ was played I hoped it would have been the song to take us to the encore. However, that honour went to ‘Trouble’ and LaMontagne was his most lively pouring his heart and soul into the line “Saved by a Woman”.

Ray Lamontagne-7

In an hour we had the full set which the Yorkshireman in me felt a little short changed at £50 a ticket, but when he returned to play one of my favourite songs of all time, all those feelings fell away. ‘Jolene’ erupts with the opening line “Cocaine flame in my bloodstream” and I feel myself punching the air like I’d scored at Wembley. It is delivered perfectly with all the pathos needed and he then plays ‘All the Wild Horses’ as a follow up – same last two tracks from the ‘Trouble’ album. Final song of the night is ‘Wouldn’t it make a lovely photograph’ from his last, largely psychedelic album ‘Ouroboros’ and of course at the end he takes off his cap to bow to the audience, thanks them for coming and then vanishes into the night.

I hope he has longevity in his career like Neil Young to keep producing quality albums, and maybe lose some of the visible insecurities, I feel privileged to have witnessed it at such a close range, loved every breathy second of his voice and would see it all again in a heartbeat, but mostly I want to make sure that he returns back again within a couple of years, I can’t wait another seven.

Ray Lamontagne-9

SETLIST: (May not be the right order): No Other Way / Beg, Steal or Borrow / Such a Simple Thing / In My Own Way / Burn / Airwaves / Old Before Your Time / To the Sea (fa la la ha la la fa la la) / Supernova / Like Rock & Roll Radio / Trouble / ENCORE: Jolene / All the Wild Horses / Wouldn’t it Make a Lovely Photograph

LISTENING: ‘Part of the Light’ new album to be released 18th May 2018, and ‘Trouble’ album released 2004.

WATCHING: ‘Jolene & All the Wild Horses’ Audience Recording from this very gig!

Ray Lamontagne-10

Leave a Reply