Review: Ray LaMontagne doesn’t conform to expectations

Ray LaMontagne appears conflicted about who he wants to be.

Will he be the folksy artist strumming on his acoustic guitar, or will he embrace the psychedelic rock of the 1960s?

Will he be the artist who takes himself so seriously that he gets defensive about walking off stage in July, when audience members were talking during his concert in Michigan, or will he be the artist who can laugh at himself and the reputation that precedes him?

Will he be the edgy musician who almost hisses out his staccato lyrics, or will he be the soft-spoken and misunderstood reclusive performer? He embraced all of his many sides and more Saturday night at Ovens Auditorium.

After the Belle Brigade gave an uneven opening performance, LaMontagne took the stage at 8:43 p.m., jumping right into “Lavender,” a seductive and trippy single off his latest album. It was an apropos selection for his opening song, given that the Supernova Tour is all about promoting his new album of the same name.

Psychedelic colors swirled on a screen behind him as his band (which included Barbara and Ethan Gruska, the duo from the Belle Brigade) segued into the hypnotic “She’s the One,” also from his new album.

In his own world

By 9 p.m., LaMontagne still seemed oblivious to the fact that he was performing for a packed auditorium. Or at least, apathetic.

After all, he had run through at least four songs and had yet to say more than a perfunctory “Thank you” to the crowd. And he didn’t make any effort to engage the audience between songs, with the stage going silent each time the musicians changed instruments.

“This isn’t a funeral,” one audience member shouted at some point between songs.

No, but it sure did feel subdued at times.

LaMontagne finally addressed the audience around 9:10, after playing his upbeat and cheery “Supernova.” But he sounded listless and automatic, his message impersonal. Were there cue cards in the audience somewhere, saying “Ray takes moment here for obligatory crowd acknowledgment”?

“How you doing? You all right? Nice to see you. Thanks for coming out tonight,” he said.

He quickly wrapped up the attempt at audience engagement, jumping into the sultry “Airwaves” (also from his new album), complete with sensual, whispered lyrics. The sound was inviting, and his vocals were irresistibly distinctive, but his lack of stage presence was distracting.

‘I won’t bite you’

Around 9:30, LaMontagne made a second attempt at interacting with the audience, this time with more candor and maybe a bit of amusement.

“You all are being so respectful. It’s very unusual to have such a respectful crowd,” he said as he chuckled a bit. “I appreciate it, but don’t be scared, I won’t bite you. I won’t curse at you, I promise. Sometimes I think my reputation precedes me, and I think people get a little afraid to speak. I don’t yell at just anybody, I just yell at the (jerks).”

The crowd burst into cheers and seemed to take LaMontagne’s encouragement to heart, with many standing up, dancing and cheering a little louder during the next song, “Repo Man,” off his 2010 album, “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise.”

Just as the crowd was getting warmed up with more recognizable LaMontagne classics, he resumed his live performance of his newest album, playing “Smashing,” a song that had the kind of surreal and distorted tempo that characterized so many Pink Floyd songs.

One audience member brazenly called out afterward, “Play some old (stuff).”

LaMontagne quipped back playfully, “You do know I just released a new record, right? ... This is not an acoustic show. ... But this is the acoustic section. ... So it would be my pleasure to sing for you a few old songs.”

All the musicians except LaMontagne and bassist Zachariah Hickman exited the stage, and LaMontagne launched into the acoustic section. The crowd’s energy spiked as LaMontagne started playing “Burn,” followed by the crowd-pleasing “Trouble” of “Traveler’s Insurance” commercial mainstream fame. He continued through “Jolene” and “Meg White.”

Around 10 p.m., he thanked everyone before exiting the stage and (predictably) coming back on the stage for his encore, the laid-back yet uplifting “Hey Me, Hey Mama” followed by the feel-good “Drive In Movies.”

Afterward, he took a moment to scan the crowd one last time before saying goodbye once more and exiting the stage.

Second-encore surprise

And then, just because he’s Ray Montagne – the kind of man who unabashedly is who he is and ain’t who he ain’t – he emerged for a second encore.

“You really have been a lovely crowd. See if you can spot this one,” he said before playing “You Are The Best Thing” around 10:20.

Since most of the crowd had already stood up to exit the auditorium (thinking erroneously that LaMontagne’s performance had ended), many remained standing. Couples in the crowd hooked their arms around each other’s waists and swayed in unison as others sang along.

“Thank you very much, everybody. I’ll see you later,” said LaMontagne before exiting the stage a third and final time.

LaMontagne is certainly a quirky if not slightly intimidating musician, with a fickle fondness for his fans and a seemingly conflicted approach to life in the spotlight.

It would have been nice if his live performance revealed more about the man behind the music, but it seems like that’s low priority for LaMontagne. He’d rather spend a night focusing on the art of music and leave his persona up to your own interpretation.