Ray LaMontagne is socially awkward, soft-spoken, and a bit scrawny. So why do people love the folksy singer-songwriter so much? Because he's an emotional soul singer who wears his heart on his sleeve. Whether he talks, croons, sings, or shouts, you believe what comes out of his mouth. The same sincerity can almost make it feel like each song is swimming through his psyche, steeped in his spirit.
For LaMontagne, a notoriously private person, this can be a bit of a curse. In a July Rolling Stone interview, he's quoted as saying, "I always hated playing clubs. I need space between me and the audience — and the more space the better. Intimate shows feel weird. People want to know you, and that sort of feels like folk music, where you want the artist to be your friend. I just can't stand it."
So we get it: LaMontagne isn't here to make friends. He doesn't enjoy the media spotlight either and rarely indulges in interviews.
For his upcoming Orpheum show, the 37-year-old New Hampshire native co-headlines with legendary singer-songwriter (and Marvell, Arkansas, native) Levon Helm (formerly the drummer in the Band). He's also no longer just "Ray LaMontagne" on the bill but "Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs" — the Dogs being his on-and-off longtime backing band consisting of Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), Eric Heywood (guitar), and Greg Leisz (pedal steel guitar). Their latest effort, God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise, debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's Top 200. Not too shabby for a guy who worked long hours in a shoe factory in Lewiston, Maine, before becoming a late-in-life musician.
It's also the first time LaMontagne has self-produced an entire album. Impressively, he wrote God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise in a two-month period and recorded it in less than two weeks in a barn on his western Massachusetts property. His first three albums, Trouble (2004), Till the Sun Turns Black (2006), and Gossip in the Grain (2008), were produced by Ethan Johns, but LaMontagne felt they took too long and cost too much money. So he struck out on his own.
The new album finds a mature, more confident LaMontagne. It opens with a somewhat out-of-character funk jam, "Repo Man," which lashes out at an ex-lover: "I'm listenin' to you beg and you plead/Don't fill my heart with no pity/What makes you think I'm gonna take you back again/I ain't your repo man, I ain't your repo man." But after that, LaMontagne slips back into more familiar territory.
Sure, there aren't as many rip-my-heart-out, slit-my-wrist anthems like the older tunes "Hold You in My Arms," "Shelter," and "Trouble." But there are a few. On the track "New York's Killing Me," you can almost envision LaMontagne in his hotel room singing, "There's just somethin' about this hotel/Got me wishin' I was dead/Gotta get out of New York City, son/ Somewhere I can clear my head ... I get so tired of all this concrete/I get so tired of all this noise/Gotta get back up in the country/ Have a couple drinks with the good ol' boys."
There are also some upbeat tunes like the radio favorite "Beg Steal or Borrow."
LaMontagne swears his songs aren't autobiographical, but that's hard to believe. The son of a violent musician father and constantly traveling mother, LaMontagne grew up poor and spent his childhood living in fictitious worlds he found in fantasy books.
"So your hometown's bringin' you down/Are you drownin' in the small talk and the chatter?" he sings to open "Beg Steal or Borrow." "Are you gonna step into line like your daddy done?/Punchin' the time and climbing life's long ladder?"
If you've never experienced LaMontagne, this is a show worth seeing. But don't expect it to be a stripped-down, acoustic set with a bunch of songs from his first two albums. The Pariah Dogs' arrangements are loud and lively. Is Ray LaMontagne your friend? No. But he's a helluva good performer.
Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs
With the Levon Helm Band
The Orpheum Theatre
Wednesday, November 10th