Two songs into Ray LaMontagne’s set at the Shubert a chorus of audience members screamed “Free Bird! Play Free Bird!” Rarely have I been to a concert where at least one chant for that glorious piece of Southern rock was not barked. While LaMontagne often draws confusion from first listeners who assert that he “must be from the deep South,” requests for Skynyrd seemed entirely out of place to many audience members and the singer himself, who replied, “I will not be playing that song tonight. […] Isn’t there an AA meeting somewhere?”
Apart from this quip, LaMontagne was very much in his own head throughout the evening, inhabiting each song of love found and lost with eyes closed and foot stomping beneath his worn Martin acoustic. New Haven may be a far trek from his 19th-century farmhouse in Phillips, Maine, but the bearded minstrel managed to forge intimate connections with each listener — even as his body angled towards his three-man band, his wounded gaze never meeting ours.
LaMontagne comes from a breed of musicians that rarely surfaces anymore, more experiential than presentational. His warm and raspy voice recounted the confusion and loss of identity at the departure of his dear Jolene, crying, “I found myself face-down in a ditch / Booze in my hair / Blood on my lips / A picture of you holding a picture of me / In the pocket of my blue jeans / Still don’t know what love means.” While some screamed and clapped at the close of “Jolene,” others could barely move their hands from their face after witnessing a man painfully attempting to repair his life without being able to identify what this woman took from him.
Perhaps recognizing the emotional consequences of playing heart-felt waltzes and ballads for an hour, LaMontagne did tap into other genres with the fiercely strummed rock song “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame)” and the funk groove “Three More Days.” These brief detours from soulful crooning merely increased the audience’s cravings for LaMontagne’s wounded gospel, and he received a rock star’s welcome at the opening words of “Trouble,” the title track off his impeccable first album. Even the song’s cheery major chords carry the tale of a worried man only able to be saved by a woman, foreshadowing a future struggle once that woman leaves.
Like an old group of friends, LaMontagne and his band played closely in line with each other, occasionally shrouded in colorful lights but hardly demanding attention with overwhelming spectacle. In a time when live performances often are contingent on crazy set pieces, light shows and costume changes, the coffee-house charm of a solemn man with his guitar, reaching out for his mama’s grasp “with [his] soul sat down so tight it’s like a stone cold tomb,” reawakens the music of our parents.