words: Jarith Hughes
“…you’re captivated by the delicacy and subtle nuances in his melodies and phrasing…”
More than a decade since his last appearance, Ray LaMontagne’s long anticipated return to grace Australian stages has come at last. Touring as part of the Byron Bay Bluesfest lineup and off the back of his latest album release “Part of the Light”, a small handful of shows in Sydney and Melbourne were also added.
It’s a cold and windy Sunday night in St Kilda. My longtime friend and fellow musician has come to visit from Queensland. I find there’s something really special in sharing musical experiences with the people you love. There’s few experiences as immersive and convergent. We arrive at the historic Palais Theater, walk down the aisle as slow as possible to take in the majesty of theaters detail and size. 1920’s music sweeps over the speakers as we grab our seats and settle in for the night.
The gigantic red curtains part for a split second while the opening act make their way to center stage. Tori Forsyth, a young Australian alt/country singer songwriter and her companion Murph lock eyes and enter into the first song of their set. Immediately I’m drawn in by Tori’s quivering, raspy voice. Something in her vibrato reminds me of Alanis Morrissette and Eddie Vedder, but with a dark country twang that feels like these songs could go back in time. Tori strums classic rhythm chords while Murph chimes out bell-like leads riffs that could almost be mistaken for a Piano.
The duette perform a collection of dark ballads and driving country songs. There’s a strong sense of sincerity and maturity in Tori’s songwriting. Her lyrics and melodies are engaging. I’m particularly drawn to the feelings of heartbreak and pain in her voice.
We arrive at intermission. The seated audience begins to shuffle and make their way to the bar, as did we. Returning with another pint in hand we’re seated. The lights dim and the curtains are drawn. On stage stands a monolith archway, framing a sky and ocean scene backdrop washed in deep blue light.
Applause breaks out and Ray LaMontagne enters the stage, followed by Bassist and backing vocalist John Stirratt of Wilco.
Bright, warm light meets the backdrop sky and duo begin their opening song “To The Sea” from his latest album. With just a deep open tuned acoustic guitar keeping rhythm, bass guitar setting the warm foundation of low end and the sparse vocal harmonies you could close your eyes and be convinced there was orchestra.
Ray LaMontagne’s voice alone is his greatest instrument. Smoothe, airy and draped in cascading reverb, you’re captivated by the delicacy and subtle nuances in his melodies and phrasing. Ray LaMontagne’s way of creating space in his songs is astonishing. You feel distant, yet drawn into the same space as him. Even in his recordings you feel like a part of the song, like you’ve adapted to its environment and you’re along for the ride. This use of space and ambience helps navigate you through the songs winding and picturesque lyrics.
The relationship between Ray’s guitar playing and John’s walking country bass lines seems as though it’s been forged through years of playing together. Staggering and rushing, Ray slows right down in moments of the songs, almost to emphasise or give room for a particular line or lyric. John follows seamlessly and together they seem to share an unique, un-quantised sense of tempo and rhythm. This creates a more organic sense of movement through the songs, as though its a statement of life's ups and downs.
The use of major and minor harmonies in songs like “Lets Make it Last” rise and fall, lending the song to climb and dive in emotionally and in dynamics. Heartbreak and hopefulness weave through Ray’s songs. He manages to capture the feeling of nostalgia with the old-time folk melodies. I’m taken back to my first moments hearing these songs, living in the Queensland hinterland as a late teen. Rolling green hills, thick dewy air and the vast coastal skies full of colour.
Ray LaMontagne plays songs spanning his 13 year career in music. Songs such as “Trouble”, “Jolene”, “Hold You in My Arms” and an alternate version of “You’re the Best Thing” were evidently crowd favourites. Banter was almost non existent. A mere “Thankyou” was all that was muttered while tuning between songs. As the night neared its end, Ray and John return for an encore of a few more songs. A sea of teary eyes and applause erupts in a standing ovation. A truly beautiful experience.