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Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs

by Taylor Morris on June 8, 2011

SPAC, June 3
In the lead-up to last weekend’s Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs show, I spent a lot of time explaining or selling LaMontagne to people. I found it weird that I needed to sell an artist with multiple Grammy nominations, first-week sales numbers of roughly 64,000 units from his latest record, and an oddball name-check on NBC’s Parenthood that revolved around a main character doing his best to listen to the new Ray LaMontagne CD for an entire episode. The best way to explain him, in 15 words or less, seemed to be “an electrified, full-band-backed, bluesy, throaty version of James Taylor.” People bought it.

In their natural habitat: Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs at SPAC. Photo by Joe Putrock.

After the night’s two openers, Secret Sisters and Brandi Carlile—who, for an “opener,” brought the house down with a gorgeous, stripped-down cover of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”—LaMontagne sauntered out onto the stage, alone. Cloaked in a green spotlight, he opened the show with the slow, subdued, acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica-centric “Like Rock & Roll and Radio.”

LaMontagne does the backwoods-folk thing well, to an almost parodiable extent. Beard, harmonica, a residence in inland Maine and the occasional flannel all match his raspy, demure voice that sounds like he’s simultaneously howling and whispering. It’s a voice accessible enough for insurance commercials but prolific enough to carry a full band to a 2010 Best Contemporary Folk Grammy win—God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise was LaMontagne’s first “band” record. It’s worth noting: LaMontagne’s voice is enough to make him a frontman, though he carried none of the other trappings. He was stage left, off-centered, dimly lit, with a hat covering his face, and stood still while playing his guitar, save for the few foot-stomping moments of “Repo Man” and a cover of the Merle Haggard classic “Mamma Tried,” backed by openers Secret Sisters singing the chorus.

For someone born in New Hampshire, who lives in Maine, and who recorded his latest LP in Massachusetts, LaMontagne sounds like a Southern Cormac McCarthy novel come to life. The thick, hazy “God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise” felt pulled from one of the novelist’s swamps, with its droning pedal-steel guitar and clamorous snare hits a half-step behind the rest of the song. The raucous, main-set closer, “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame)”—a song LaMontagne promised was entirely true and about “nearly getting [his] ass kicked . . . when [he] was selling weed and LSD”—had all the macabre sensibilities you’d expect from a Southern gothic classic. LaMontagne assured us that “those days are gone. Now I just drink lemonade and watch the History Channel.”

Though LaMontagne mentioned difficulty breathing throughout the night, coughed often after finishing songs, and said, “It’s one of those nights: I can’t breathe and the electric shit’s not working,” during a brief technical glitch between songs, the receptive, welcoming SPAC crowd of moms and dads on their weekly night out and college-aged couples going on a “real date” paid no mind. His cough seemed to only plague his speech because, after a full night’s work, LaMontagne ended the night the way he started it: green spotlight, acoustic guitar and harmonica, with the delicate vocals of “All the Wild Horses” fading into an early-summer night.