Live Music: Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs at the Greek Theatre

By Mike Finkelstein

Every so often, we have the good fortune to hear some new music that makes us wonder how we hadn’t heard it before and at the same time wonderfully fulfilled to take it in now.    Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs put me into one of those great states on Saturday night at the Greek Theater.   Like many, I had heard his hauntingly beautiful, brooding song “Trouble” in any number of situations and loved it.  So I went to the show Saturday with some real anticipation of what his other material would sound like.   Lyrically and instrumentally the songs grabbed me and took me somewhere new, somewhere I will go again.

Ray LaMontagne is not like too many other performers out there.  His voice is a mid-ranged husk, very breathy and he gently pushes a lot of air as if he were sighing.  The effect is a powerful delivery that is nuanced, weathered, and intriguing as hell to listen to.    His songs are vivid, artful descriptions of the extreme pain and joy that life may bring to our souls.   You can hear fleeting similarities to voices like Nick Drake’s and Steven Stills’ but it’s subtle.  Sometimes the songs suggest Leonard Cohen or Neil Young (“Like Rock ‘n Roll and Radio”) but again it’s just for a flash, a point of reference.  Ray LaMontagne sounds like himself and that is powerful stuff.

Ray LaMontagne

He also doesn’t appear to want the spotlight.   He was headlining the show, alright, doing his songs, with his band. Standing to farthest stage left in some of the dimmer spotlights you’ll ever see on a bandleader, he could, of course, watch the whole band from that position.

With a thick, dark beard, dressed in a light shirt, dark vest and a flat-top wide-brimmed hat, he had a late 1800’s tinge to his look in the night light.  Showmanship and hamming it up (or even cracking a few jokes) are not what RL is about and were not part of the show.  While he did speak to us briefly and warmly between some songs, he was there with the Pariah Dogs to get the songs across in the best light and they all took loving care of that task.

There were four Pariah Dogs on stage with LaMontagne — Eric Heywood (pedal steel guitar and guitar), Greg Leisz  (guitar, lap steel, steel guitar), Jay Bellarose (drums), and Jennifer Condos (bass).   The members of this band carry impressive credentials, having played with artists ranging from Joni Mitchell to Bruce Springsteen to Wilco to Sam Philips to Robert Plant and Ryan Adams, among others.  Given a solid batch of songs to sculpt, tweak, and structure, this group will surely follow with chemistry.  Which brings us to Saturday’s show…

Under a rising full moon, the show began with RL playing “Burn” for us, alone, on his acoustic guitar.   The song is about the pain of not being able to let go of lost love… and being willing to burn in his skin for it. It was quite fitting that he would sing a chillingly beautiful song like “Burn” alone, given the pain in the words.   Not exactly an upbeat way to begin but this was to be a night of bringing beauty out of pain.

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs

Then RL was joined by the Pariah Dogs who proceeded to flesh out the songs like “For The Summer,” “Beg, Steal or Borrow,” “Hold You In My Arms,” “Shelter,” and “New York City’s Killing Me.”  At their core some of the songs were bluegrass (“Devil’s In The Jukebox”), some blues, but most were written in LaMontagne’s own dynamic emerging style.   With lap or pedal steel guitar on nearly every tune, each arrangement had a clean, balanced, and layered sound.   The steel guitars swelled, swayed and wiggled through the contours of the songs, but it was RL’s delivery that made each song special, provoking genuine anticipation from the audience.  They knew his repertoire and gave it the quiet it deserved in which to be appreciated.  During the detailed and poignant “Empty,” there were times when you could hear a pin drop.

The key to the show’s great sound was, firstly, the Pariah Dog’s arrangements of the tunes and secondly the spacious mix at the Greek.   LaMontagne’s songs breezed along, driven by his own acoustic guitar and Bellarosa’s nimble brushwork on the drums.   With little clatter and noise from the drums, there was much empty space available in the open air.   The pedal and steel guitars filled the same space — with more movement — that is usually taken by keyboards or a cello.  Even with the country instrumentation the sound was refreshingly less stylized than that.   One really had to marvel at how effectively a steel guitar can add dimension and emotion to an arrangement.

“Trouble” is perhaps LaMontagne’s most widely heard song.  As it was recorded it features a set of simply repeated but cleverly inverted chords with a string arrangement that embellishes the mood of the song elegantly.  In fact, strings were a significant part of his sound at that point in his career and, for better or worse, this got him compared by many to artists such as Nick Drake and Tim Buckley.    On Saturday there were no strings.  Instead, the steel guitars filled their space and actually improved the arrangement of already great songs like “Trouble,” and “Hold You in My Arms.”  On “For The Summer” Greg Leisz made very tasty use of lap steel, playing in the same mid to lower registers that a cello might.    For “New York City’s Killing Me” and “Hold You In My Arms” Eric Heywood’s pedal steel whined forlornly over the changes, summoning up the melancholy in the audience.   This type of interplay and embellishment went on all night and it was delightful.

The fine line between beauty and sadness is where LaMontagne has set up shop to write his songs and the harmonically rich treatment he now gives them suits the balance between emotion and music like a glove.  We got the sense that we were watching a proven artist taking it to a new level and likely entering the prime of his career.

The show was opened by Brandi Carlisle, a Seattle native who has been grinding away on the LA singer/songwriter scene for several years.   She was jazzed to get the opportunity to tour with Ray LaMontagne and, on this evening, to actually play a big-time venue like the Greek Theater. Featuring violin and cello contrasted with driving Gretsch hollow body electric guitars, she and her versatile 5-piece band turned in a winsome, inspired set and even had the whole place on their feet when they rocked Johnny Cash’s “Jackson” quite properly.   She, too, has strong songs that fly with either a toned down or turned up arrangement.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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