I remember vividly the text message from a professional colleague, more mature in years than me, in response to my sending a link to young Tassie folkster Claire Anne Taylor’s new release.
“She is an Australian version of Ray LaMontagne. Have a listen to ‘Til the Sky Turns Black’ – an all-time favourite album of mine.”
This encounter came to mind as I watched the stage being prepared for Ray LaMontagne’s early evening set at Bluesfest Byron Bay, having comprehensively enjoyed the 2006 recording that was the subject of that previous text message. I hadn’t listened to much more than that 2006 recording by the time of Bluesfest, so was keenly interested to see what else the set might bring.
Only two microphones stood tall, a small table separating them, and a guitar stand behind each. Minimal and simple, a diversion from the elaborate setup for the majority of blues, funk and soul bands that Byron Bay’s Easter music festival is most commonly known for. In a slight surprise, Troy Cassar-Daley politely pushed past me to join his family just ahead of me in the crowd. I’d heard that Ray LaMontagne was a favourite amongst a number of music industry folk but I didn’t expect to see that demonstrated so specifically as a star of country music took a place near the front.
It wasn’t long before two men took the stage, guitar and bass, and the unique, breathy voice of LaMontagne filled the tent to the tune of ‘No Other Way’ from the 2014 ‘Supernova’ album. Not surprisingly, the tent was quiet but for the gentle hum of light conversation at the periphery. LaMontagne commands attention without giving instruction, the power of his singing voice and the strumming of the guitar enough to compel the regard of the several thousand present in the Crossroads tent.
“Thank you. It’s nice to see you.”
LaMontagne appeared full of humility, gratitude and introspection even as the crowd cheered and squealed with delight as each song concluded, skipping between his releases from 2004 to 2018. He said very little, save for offering the odd thanks, and introducing his bass player, John Stirratt of Wilco fame. Stirratt himself generally hid in the shadow in deference to LaMontagne throughout the set, but seemed to bring the perfect harmony to his microphone at the perfect time, adding a lovely dimension ideal for the subdued but emotive concert. Later, a small group of fans would be overheard comparing the two part harmonies to performances of Simon and Garfunkel.
High points for the set included recent release ‘Such A Simple Thing’, ‘Airwaves’ with its raspy whispers and punching rhythm, and ‘Jolene’. LaMontagne saved his hopeful melancholy best for last, delivering a rendition of ‘Trouble’, with its shout of “SAVED by a woman” being met with extended shouts and accolade from the audience as the set finished up.
Ray LaMontagne brought bittersweet poignancy to the final day of Bluesfest as punters enjoyed the final performances of their favourite acts while lamenting another year of waiting for Easter’s arrival once again. Fans of LaMontagne need not wait too long though as Bluesfest Touring has scheduled dates in Sydney and Melbourne over the coming week. Ray LaMontagne’s performance was a memorable moment in a wonderful 30th birthday weekend for the Byron Bay Bluesfest.
IMAGE (c) David Harris