Ray LaMontagne, Belle Brigade Fair Park Music Hall, Dallas Saturday, August 2
By the time that "She's the One," the second song from Ray LaMontagne's Saturday night show at Fair Park Music Hall in Dallas, was complete, the tone for the night had been firmly set. Unfortunately, it was a toothless one forged in a benign, methodical and wholly emotionless manner.
It's no secret that LaMontagne has the onstage personality of one of the drained bargain-bin wine bottles from the Hall's concession booth. And surely, few in the packed house were there for the bearded folk-rocker's witty banter. Not helping matters was the unique equation presented by the venue itself. On the surface, the classic, pristine-sounding and under-utilized venue seemed like a perfect fit as folk music usually lends itself to staying seated and respectfully clapping from time to time. But since LaMontagne understandably leaned rather heavily on his newer, pop-based material, the awkward scenario of sitting quietly while his skilled band did its best to inject a somewhat rocking energy into the fantastic room created a feeling of defeat before the night had barely progressed.
The first handful of songs the robotic LaMontagne performed, primarily from his most recent LP, the imminently enjoyable Dan Auerbach-produced Supernova, proved that songs with bright, poppy vibes on vinyl aren't necessarily going to burst with the same fervor in a live setting. From the onset, everything was just... fine. The band was fine, LaMontagne sounded fine and everyone seemed to have a fine time. A fine evening doesn't a killer show make, however.
The visual display projected high above the band on the venue's back wall came off as more of a series of rather dull screensavers than anything resembling the psychedelic feel that would accompany the sunny senses of the '60s-flavored folk-pop LaMontagne offered up.
Such a milquetoast overtone wasn't the result of a lack of effort, seemingly. Indeed, everything seemed to be clicking as much as it was intended to. LaMontagne's performance of "Supernova," showcased his full-bodied, distinctive rasp as his band went full-steam ahead in admirable fashion with swirling flourishes, while "Ojai" also punched things up with a colorful burst as LaMontagne sang about "hitching a ride on the PCH." Even "Repo Man," the grizzly, most exciting number from LaMontagne's stellar 2010 country-soul album God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise, fell flat as it wafted from the stage toward the back of the main floor, as had the preceding numbers for the most part.
After an hour, LaMontagne's crew -- which played with the precision of Nashville's finest session players all night -- hopped off the stage for a break. But a bass player remained as he took hold of a majestic upright bass and nudged in close to the dour lead man. At that point, for three songs at least, the evening became an intimate and joyful one. While he still employed an up-tempo approach, LaMontagne led the crowd through a collective sing-along of "Burn," then the goosebump-inducing "Trouble," which rightfully remains his stunning signature number, and then the gripping "Jolene." Each of these set-saving tunes is from LaMontagne's breakthrough 2004 debut album Trouble. If only the whole night could've felt so warmly welcoming.
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While this specific woodsy balladeer has yet to make an album that's anything short of fantastic, that every album, regardless of a given record's specific sonic style, will be held up to that decade-old gem is a fact of his artistic life.
After that refreshing, almost rejuvenating acoustic breakdown, LaMontagne and crew attempted a bit of levity and playfulness when they busted out the iconic riff from the White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" during "Meg White" from 2008's Gossip in the Grain. But again, as had been the case all evening long, the attempt wasn't enough to elicit more than a bit of polite clapping with a few half-hearted smirks mixed in.
Were we sitting in the wrong section? The sound seemed fine from where we sat quietly. Are we being unfair to hope for the same emotional wallop from the new material in a live setting that LaMontagne's older material provides? We don't think so.
With the exception of the resplendent, perfectly calculated campfire session halfway through the night, the concert's personality -- or lack thereof, to be more accurate -- mirrored that of its pseudo-psychedelic star who never seemed to care whether the audience felt the groove or not.