Ray LaMontagne Teaches Me to Write by Mary Ellen Walsh

Posted: April 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

Our friends Brett and Marianne from Boston said, “You gottahear Ray!”  A Yankee Maine man, he wastheir product to show off.  RayLaMontagne trickled into my life late a few years ago while driving in upstateNew York.  His breathy soulful voiceflooded my senses.  Who is he?  Why have I not heard this before?  The debut Trouble album hints ofbackwoods jug blowing, acoustic upright bass, waltzing ¾ time.  Molecules actually moved in the air tocreate; it’s not computer fabricated. It’s old world, ageless and fresh; “Trouble,” “Jolene” (the he sideof the Dolly Parton seductress saga) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAsmvFjqVwo  He slowed the world down and demands yourattention because it’s whole grain music like hardy folk weathering coldwinters.

Ray took up residence in our car, my Ipod, my brain.  “Again?” my husband, Tom, would ask (jealous)as we drove anywhere.  Ray. Ray. Ray—allthe time.

“I need a fix,” I’d say.

I’m not easily impressed. Okay, cynical, Tom says.  But, god,how often do you suffer the indignities of HEARING more about what someone can do than actuallywitnessing it?  Snooze…boring!

With Ray, I peeled apart every song.  How? He’s just playing five-chord progressions C, F back to G, sometimes infast precision contrasting his long held vocal notes, not tuned down or up, butraw music without fancy silverware—picnic utensils; real instrumentsthat aren’t stolen old re-mastered tracks. No synthesized vocals.  Lyricsfrom a true poet painting a picture: “Hannah” –Eyes like ice, hands that shake, she takes whatshe deserves…sweep the floors with your long flower dress when you cannot finda broom.

I bought more.  Thebeauty of coming late to the party, you can ingest the artist’s entire body ofwork in one sitting.  Whoa  horns? Darkness?  Ray? Ray!  RAY.  As he breathlessly asks “Can I Stay” I’m schoolgirl shy openly embarrassed.The way good art makes you feel—caught in the act peering at naked him.  Yes. Right here, I pat the mattress, stay. Don’t go.   I beg to see this liveand want MORE.

We flocked to the Beacon theatre a few years ago as RayLaMontagne blew through New York City.

Ray’s story; middle class Minnesota-reared Dylan should bejealous of this myth-worthy background. Supposedly while listening to Stephen Stills R & B “Treetop Flyer,”(a better shade of Stevie Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman,”) Ray, father of two boys,chucked shoe-factory work finally tapping the music coursing through his veins,a legacy from his deadbeat musician father. Growing up, he’d traveled aimlessly with mom and five siblings here,there and Utah, getting into heaps of trouble, cutting school.  Who knows; it’s his story to repeat.  He recorded ten demo songs in ’99.   Someone heard it.  Booked him for a New England festival.  The bookings grew.  Industry people signed him for songwritingalong with Ethan Johns.  RCA picked himup.  The debut simplistic waltzing Troublealbum http://www.amazon.com/Trouble-Ray-LaMontagne/dp/B0002S947K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1257957624&sr=1-1took only two weeks to cut and was released September 2004 at #189 onBillboard.  The second, darker CD TillThe Sun Turns Black http://www.amazon.com/Till-Sun-Turns-Black-LaMontagne/dp/B000GPIPVU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1257957558&sr=1-1released two years later August 2006 climbed to #28 on Billboard.

It’s not his use of the breath, slow and laborious definingsyllables with gentle whisper endings. Or his phrasing like surfboarders’ toes tucked on the edge of a wave,when he hushes all of this around us, will fall over.  Tell you what we’re gonna do in“Shelter.” http://new.music.yahoo.com/ray-lamontagne/tracks/shelter–3831927

It’s not his raspy, haunting voice that channels Joe Cockeror Tracy Chapman or Van Morrison’s troubadour. It’s that he reminds you of…of… something that thirty year olds todayare bringing back to us.  He’s 38.  Somewhere that we’ve been before that they’rere-packaging scruffier; the chiseled artist bristling with truthfulness.  Maybe it’s the Steve Winwood-like organ of ThreeMore Days off the second album.  Orthe James Brown R & B “You Are The Best Thing” on the third well-receivedalbum Gossip in the Grain released October 2008, http://www.amazon.com/Gossip-Grain-Ray-LaMontagne/dp/B001AX9DT0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1257956044&sr=8-1  hitting #3 on Billboard sealing his fate—heain’t going anywhere but up.   Or thewhite man sounds black thing that made heaps of money for record labels in thelate 50s.  No, it’s something you can’tput your finger on… until you see him live and it happened.  That’s it.

It’s plumbing the dark depths as the tears fill my eyes andhe’s burrowed his way in.  DEEPER.  Oh, I’ve been here before.  That hurts; he remindsyou–quietly.  The way it came at you thefirst time you felt the stinging unsuspecting truth—a love affair is over.   “Sarah,” and he makes the guitar sound likerain.

I’ve never heard the Beacon so quiet.  Solo. Just him, a mike, a guitar and 2,500 strangers.  Ray not only commands the stage, but demands tobe heard by being, if possible, even more uncomfortably quiet betweensongs.  As a show, it doesn’t reach thethree-act play climax and encore.  Eachsong is a mini-play with its own release. More like the 60s Village Hootenannies, where a guy – lets face it, mostof them were – got up with a guitar and sang one acoustic number afteranother.  Hey, top this! one upping eachother.

Ray took the stage wearing a London cabbie hat, broad clothwhite shirt and tan vest like he had just gotten off the boat on Ellis Islandprojecting that old world, old soul feel. But, what you hear on the CDs is what you get because it was always justhim.  With black and white images on thescreen behind him, at times just a swath of red or purple, he sang, windy andpained like draining a wound over and over.

“Hold You in MyArms,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziUsdu1vZtEaccentuating;

When you kissed my lips,

My mouth so full of questions,

My worried mind she quiets.

Ahhhh,  God.  Just listen to that!

http://www.raylamontagne.com/Brett and Marianne were right.  You gottahear Ray!

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