What does an artist owe an audience?
Is it an evening brimming with songs instantly familiar to those gathered before the stage? Or is a night spent chasing a feeling across a deliberately assembled set list more rewarding, a chance to invite those in attendance to share in the mood being conjured?
Perhaps the answer lies in a lyric Ray LaMontagne sang near the conclusion of his mesmerizing set Friday night at the Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory: “I won’t fold like a paper man/To which I’ve been told by a paper-white plan.”
In other words, anyone expecting the rangy troubadour, gifted with a fraying burlap tenor with the power to pin you to your seat, to hew to convention hasn’t been paying attention. Over the nearly 15 years LaMontagne has been a recording and touring musician, the 44-year-old has evinced a studied indifference to trends or easy crowd-pleasing, instead following his muse wherever it leads.
He broke through with the mournful single “Jolene” — those mystified by LaMontagne’s name know that track, if nothing else — and has since charted a career largely on his own terms, even winning a Grammy in 2011.
For his last three albums, including this year’s self-produced Part of the Light, LaMontagne has been fascinated by the intersection of melodic folk, art-rock and sun-dappled pop, losing himself in patently gorgeous compositions rewarding careful listening and close attention.
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Friday’s set, performed for a comfortably full room that was opened up to the lawn on a sweltering evening, reached no further back than 2014’s incandescent Supernova, giving the roughly 90-minute performance a distinct cohesion. (“Jolene” was nowhere to be found.)
The brilliant Light, along with Supernova and 2016’s spaced-out Ouroboros, comprise a loose trilogy that finds LaMontagne toggling between wonder and worry. The songs arrayed across these three records are often sublime, but as Friday’s show demonstrated, the songs are not particularly well-suited to the vast, easily distracted rooms in which LaMontagne, who shifted between electric and acoustic guitar, now finds himself.
He kicked off with the chugging “Julia,” his four bandmates behind him on a stage surrounded by a trio of screens depicting, depending upon your point of view, either viewfinders, frames or old-school TV screens. Impressionistic swirls of light bathed the musicians and the screens throughout the evening, further underscoring the music’s languid, introspective nature.
LaMontagne fans know he isn’t a particularly garrulous sort. He spoke a grand total of 26 words during the main set: “Nice to see you all — thank you so much for coming out tonight. It’s always a pleasure to be here,” he said before “Such a Simple Thing.” Later, he said, “Thank you very much — thank you,” as the concluding notes of the epic “Goodbye Blue Sky” faded away.
That between-songs' reticence puts the focus squarely upon the music being made, and LaMontagne delivered a gripping showcase. The set list bordered upon hypnotic, ebbing and flowing from “Lavender” to “To the Sea” to the sweetly shuffling “Ojai” to “No Answer Arrives,” with occasional uptempo, near-rollicking cuts like “Drive-In Movies” or “Paper Man.”
Unfortunately, LaMontagne, on point from first note to last, was performing before an audience in the Dallas suburbs, where rude indifference — manifested in loud talking, drinking with purpose and faces buried in smartphones — is practically an art form unto itself.
In section 100, where I was seated, the night became something of an endurance test as LaMontagne indulged in songs such as “It’s Always Been You,” a smoldering, sensitively rendered stunner that seemed to stop time.
This only inspired the loudmouths in front of me, in row M, to natter on at a higher volume, as if they were getting blissfully loaded at happy hour rather than watching a live musical performance. Contemplation was not something this chunk of the crowd wanted — the music seemed wholly incidental to draining another overpriced carafe of white wine.
So, to invert my earlier question: What does an audience owe an artist?
There’s a school of thought that, because the audience laid out money to attend, paying attention is purely optional. Such an approach seems pretty extravagant given the plethora of far cheaper alternatives, like going to a bar and letting a jukebox do the heavy lifting.
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Instead of disrespecting the musicians performing onstage, what about taking a moment to soak up what’s being shared? These shows aren’t the sonic backdrop for an evening of catching up — they’re the reason you left the house in the first place. (For crying out loud, even the Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory’s acoustics made for a remarkably pristine listening experience.)
LaMontagne has made no secret about his feelings for inattentive audiences, and I can’t imagine he’d have been thrilled with the oblivious attitude of those seated around me. The care and craft LaMontagne showcased Friday transcended the less-than-ideal conditions in which it was shared, a caveat that is yet another reminder of how often and how profoundly Dallas-area audiences take for granted the artists who pass across our stages.
Friday evening was indeed a bounty of riches for the attentive fans of sophisticated singer-songwriters. Neko Case opened with a bracing 50-minute set, pulling heavily from her just-released Hell-On.
Backed by a sextet of musicians, the flame-haired Case gamely punched out a dozen songs, including the exquisite “Last Lion of Albion” and “Halls of Sarah,” dedicated to “the kids playing tag on the lawn.” Case’s clarion voice shone like the sun setting over the criminally thin crowd — a shimmering beacon of beauty amid the cement sprawl.