Ray LaMontagne leaves a lot in his wake as he just passes through
Wilco bassist John Stirratt is accompanying LaMontagne on the artist's first acoustic tour in nearly five years, which will feature songs from LaMontagne's six albums, according to a press release. After a recent foray into psychedelic territory, however, the question is whether LaMontagne's latest visitation to a stripped-down sound is a sign of what's to come from the tight-lipped artist or merely a fleeting trip down memory lane.
In 2004, the singer-songwriter-guitarist released "Trouble," an album that introduced many listeners to his signature rasp, heavy strum and heavier lyrics, eventually going gold. "Jolene" and "Trouble" still rank among his most popular songs, the former encapsulating the melancholic writing that drove his early records:
"My eyes been stung with dust, I'm blind/Held you in my arms one time/Lost you just the same/Jolene."
It often sounds like it's LaMontagne's throat that has inhaled a cloud of country road dirt when he sings, accentuating the pain in his words and making him one of the most recognized voices in contemporary music.
"His soulful vocals fit perfectly with the plaintive songwriting and sparse acoustic guitar-driven melodies," Andy Tennille of American Songwriter observed in 2006.
Critical acclaim continued with his 2006 follow-up, "Till the Sun Turns Black." Two of the top numbers off of his third album, "Gossip in the Grain," epitomize the record's devotion to his folk roots ("Let It Be Me") and efforts to push beyond them (the catchy, vocally backed "You Are the Best Thing").
But 2010 was a turning point in LaMontagne's musical journey. "God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise," his fourth record, won the Grammy award for best contemporary folk album, and one of its songs, "Beg Steal or Borrow," was nominated for best song of the year. Yet, critics weren't as effusive, saying the lyrics were no longer plunging into the depths of despair.
"Yes, it's pleasant escapism, but when there's nothing genuinely heartfelt at stake, who's going to care after the credits roll?" wrote Steven Hyden of The A.V. Club, a common criticism.
LaMontagne wasn't content, either.
"I felt pretty crummy coming off the road with the last record and pretty unhappy about work," he told Alan Light of The New York Times in 2014, noting that he was putting too much pressure on himself.
He didn't release another record until 2014, when he enlisted The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach to produce "Supernova." It was LaMontagne's first move into psychedelia, a genre he continued to explore with producer and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James in his last album, "Ouroboros" (2016). Critics have lauded LaMontagne for drifting from his early sound and honoring Pink Floyd and other rock icons in the process.
But one never knows when LaMontagne is ready for a change. He is far more reserved than the affable Stirratt, whom many in the Berkshires may have seen buzzing about the grounds of the Mass MoCA, balancing his role as both host and performer at this summer's Solid Sound Festival.
Regardless of LaMontagne's intentions, an acoustic show promises to highlight his strengths as a performer. But its success — or lack thereof — won't determine where he goes next.
"I've never cared what people's perceptions of me are," he told Rolling Stone in 2016, "and I really don't give a flying f---."