After 10 years away, Ray LaMontagne is still all about the voice


State Theatre, April 24


You might argue Ray LaMontagne should have flown over a drummer, an organist and an electric guitarist for his first Australian shows in 10 years.

These instruments are, after all, integral to the psychedelic-tinged soft rock the American singer-songwriter has pursued on the past three of his seven studio albums.

Instead, on this night, we got Ray, his acoustic guitar, and a bass player.

But this was no case of economics beating artistry. The instrument that matters most on any LaMontagne song is his voice and – apart from the first verse of opener No Other Way, where a soundboard error made it inaudible – we got 90 minutes of it, no distractions.

Ray LaMontagne just brought himself and a bass player to the State Theatre.

Those pipes are a gift from nature. Whether telling a story on country strum-along Old Before Your Time, navigating a tricky minor melody on To the Sea, or in soul-man mode on the upbeat Supernova – " that's what you, watchoo are!" – LaMontagne's husky, honeyed tone was utterly captivating.

The comparisons to Van Morrison, Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke have oft been made – and LaMontagne did sound eerily like the latter on a new coda of breakthrough hit Trouble – but, in truth, there's nothing else like it.

Credit to LaMontagne, too, for knowing how to put his lucky larynx to best use. This night was a masterclass in how to use a microphone: getting close to the point of distortion gave urgency when he whispered on Airwaves, while stepping back for many big notes added impact to the times he did not, like the full-throated cry on Wouldn't It Make A Lovely Photograph to end the show at a stunning peak.

His lyrics, meanwhile, contained just enough poetry not to spoil the intimacy and relatability. When LaMontagne got hold of a phrase such as "I will stand here/ And burn in my skin" – singing it several more times than he does on Burn's studio version – the reverent crowd got even more silent and still.

That bass player was no slouch either. Just John Stirratt, a founding member of Wilco, unflashily filling out the sound and clearly enjoying himself. He and LaMontagne's harmonised choruses on the likes of Beg Steal Or Borrow were flawless.

With the exception of You Are the Best Thing – the one time a studio element was missed, in this case the rousing horn part – this show was perfect in its simplicity, too.

Ray LaMontagne plays the State Theatre on April 25.

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