Ray Lamontagne has three kinds of songs: sad songs, really sad songs, and excruciatingly sad songs. A few hours after his wrenching performance at the Central Park Summerstage last night, I flipped on the season premiere of The Office to see a pregnant Pam sobbing as she listens to “Trouble,” the title track from his 2004 debut. (His songs have also appeared in the tearjerkers Rescue Me and Grey’s Anatomy.)
Lamontagne is an old-fashioned singer songwriter, the kind of acoustic strummer you find in your local coffeehouse and on the satellite radio station The Coffee House.) His music is a blend of country and folk—last night he covered Merle Haggard and The Byrds. But his raspy tenor voice sounds more like old school R&B. Close your eyes and you could mistake this bearded white boy for Sam Cooke or Otis Redding.
In many ways, Lamontagne is similar to Ryan Adams, whose 13th album Ashes and Fire, aired Sunday on NPR’s First Listen and will be reviewed here shortly. Both are 30-something guys who revive classic country sounds and like to wail about sorrow. Both enlisted Ethan Johns to produce their angsty debut records, Trouble and Heartbreaker. While Lamontage may be a less imaginative songwriter than Adams and is far less prolific, his voice has way more soul.
In concert, Lamontagne is subdued and shy. He stands at a microphone on the side of the stage. Between songs, he barely speaks to the crowd and barely banters with his band: a jolly drummer, a female bassist who may have lost her volume knob, and two old timer guitarists who rotate among lap steel, pedal steel, and electric. Like many musicians, you get the sense that he prefers to let his songs speak for him.
Mostly, those songs are about pain. His set last night included the achy waltz “Trouble,” the bluesy “Yellow Moon,” the funk-inflected “Repo Man,” and “Jolene,” in which he does cocaine in Spokane and laments: “I ain’t about to go straight/it’s too late/I found myself face down in a ditch/Blood in my hair/booze 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.” If Ray could see the crowd from the stage he might have been dismayed (or heartened) by the sheer volume of couples holding hands, thankful not to be alone.
Ironically, the most haunting song of the night was “New York City’s Killing Me,” from his latest album, God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, which won a Grammy in 2010 for best contemporary folk album. While there may have been few rednecks in the audience, the crowd whooped when the Maine native sang: “I get so tired of all this concrete/I get so tired of all this noise/Gotta get back up in the country/Have a couple drinks with the good ole’ boys.”
In one of the few upbeat segments of the night, Lamontagne invited Chris Thile and Gabe Witcher of Punch Brothers, the opening band, to play Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and a cut from the Byrds album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Punch Brothers are no strangers to heartbreak; their debut album features a 40-minute suite about Thile’s divorce. (Disclaimer: my brother directed a documentary film, How to Grow a Band, about Punch Brothers). Nevertheless, their relatively animated stage presence, and lively mandolin and fiddle solos, lent the show some levity.
Lamontagne was a fitting choice for the last show of the annual concert series at Central Park. On a foggy fall evening, his music seemed to bury summer and foreshadow the darkness of winter.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He likes sad songs.