Ray LaMontagne did a lot with a little Sunday night at the Music Hall at Fair Park, before an attentive, largely respectful room full of fans (itself a miracle; more on that momentarily). His Just Passing Through tour is a stripped-down affair. Apart from a guitar tech’s fleeting appearances to hand off various instruments, the only two people on stage were LaMontagne and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Carl Broemel, of My Morning Jacket renown. That sparseness resulted in one of the more magnetic evenings of music to unfold upon a Dallas-area stage this year.
LaMontagne is a famously taciturn sort who prefers to let his expressive, deeply vulnerable and occasionally opaque songs do all the talking. And so it was this past Sunday, with LaMontagne, bathed in softly shifting lights on a spare stage, mustering little more than perfunctory thanks for the passionate applause, declarations of love and full-blooded whoops whirling through the darkness throughout the roughly 110-minute set.
That said, it did seem at points that the New Hampshire native’s demeanor had thawed ever so slightly — “loose” seems hyperbolic in this context, but the troubadour was certainly in better spirits than 17 months ago, during a June 2018 stop at Irving’s Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory.
This brings us to Sunday’s astonishingly well-behaved audience — a group that, it should be noted with some frustration, did not fill the Music Hall to capacity — although what it lacked in numbers it made up for with volume.
Befitting a performance built upon the cozy give and take between a pair of musicians largely working with acoustic instruments — Broemel occasionally made use of an electric guitar, but his slick cascades of sound were tasteful and laid lightly against LaMontagne’s acoustic guitar — the gathered fans absorbed it all in rapt silence, a welcome change of pace from the relentlessly yappy and infuriatingly rude spectators who marred LaMontagne’s last trip through town.
Consequently, what was already a dazzling display became something more — a vivid showcase of the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter’s ability to traverse the breadth of his catalog, stitching together an eclectic set capable of satisfying fans and allowing him to recast well-known songs in fascinating, fresh contexts.
Indeed, peeling back his life’s work to its essence made the details pop that much more: The howling anguish animating “Like Rock & Roll and Radio,” the slippery psychedelia of “Lavender,” the blistering yearning of “Such a Simple Thing” or the wrenching passion of breakout single “Trouble,” which LaMontagne and Broemel spun into an extended jam, teasing out subtle new shades. (And, yes, “Jolene” turned up in the encore.)
Threaded through every song was LaMontagne’s unmistakable voice: a raw, riveting scrape of a tenor capable of swinging from adoration to desperation and back again. With nothing more than Broemel’s own harmony vocals behind it, LaMontagne frequently allowed the exquisite weariness of his singing bear the weight of his words.
LaMontagne also pressed his limber frame into service, often letting his feet, legs and arms mirror the expressiveness of his voice and playing — bouncing on the balls of his feet one moment, craning his neck to push more air toward the microphone the next — the 46-year-old’s restless vigor added a kinetic layer to even the most delicate passages.
Reams could be written about how simpatico LaMontagne and Broemel were from first note to last — in a fleeting, moving gesture, Broemel clapped LaMontagne on the back in celebratory fashion as they exited the stage after the main set concluded — and what Broemel brought to the evening. The textures of acoustic and electric guitar and pedal steel were deftly rendered, and Broemel’s high, haunting harmonies provided a welcome, extra kick.
Though many of the songs showcased Sunday were contemplative and spare, it was not a dire evening that sent everyone home in a fog of gloom — enough light seeped in around the edges, whether through the alchemy of LaMontagne and Broemel’s collaboration, or the often-hopeful words uttered by a man who seemed positively rejuvenated by his performance, to render the experience transcendent.
“Oh, the hourglass is cruel/And the moment given is the moment spent,” LaMontagne sang during the encore. In that instant, although he was singing of love’s fleeting tendencies, he might just as well have been pleading to let this evening’s ample pleasures linger just a little longer.
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