Ray LaMontagne brought his introspective side to St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater

Reviewer Eric Snider definitely felt like the cult-hero songwriter was "Just Passing Through."

click to enlarge Ray LaMontagne plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on November 11, 2018. - Sandra Dohnert
Sandra Dohnert
Ray LaMontagne plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on November 11, 2018.

Something was amiss before the lights went up. Two microphones stood side by side about 15 feet back from the lip of the Mahaffey Theater stage. Odd. Was Ray LaMontagne really going to put a buffer between himself and the audience in an acoustic show?

Yes he did. Why does this matter? Acoustic sets in 2,000-seaters like the Mahaffey present challenges, but one thing is unassailable: It’s in the artist’s best interest to make a connection with the audience that goes deeper than merely performing songs. In this regard, Ray LaMontagne failed absolutely.

The singer/songwriter and his sideman — bassist/singer John Stirratt from Wilco — strolled languidly onto the stage at 8:40 p.m. Sunday and absently took their places. After a moment or two of the requisite tuning, they began with “No Other Way,” the first in a series of mostly dreary tunes from LaMontagne’s introspective milieu.

The muted overhead lights — no spotlights or changing colors — cast them in a grayish shroud. Behind them, faux Roman columns encased moving images of clouds.

Two fuzzy figures performing lugubrious music too softly.

The sold-out crowd was filled mostly with serious fans, some of whom hooped and yelped at even the subtlest of gestures. If only Ray had mustered one iota of their enthusiasm.

LaMontagne’s seven albums possess an intriguing range for an artist who is, at his core, a folkie. The rootsy soul of God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise contrasts markedly with the gauzy psychedelia of this year’s Part of the Light, or the willfully obtuse Ouroboros from 2016. He’s even delivered, on occasion, moments of wry humor and exuberance, like his best-known tune, “You Are the Best Thing.” Sadly, there was no room for such a number during Sunday night’s set. Too much like… fun.

The recorded version of “New York City’s Killing Me” is a get-back-to-the-country lament with a grain of hope. For Sunday night’s rendition, Ray sounded like he wanted to die.

The concert’s acoustic format (Stirratt played electric bass, but still) stripped the tunes of their sonic texture. Further, LaMontagne’s voice — which evinces a solid dynamic range on his albums — idled in a strained cross between a whisper and a croak, like extra-fine sandpaper.

He played the sensitive singer/songwriter to the point of parody. Clad in rumpled khakis and a work shirt, he rarely addressed the crowd. When he did, it was with the kind of withering shyness that made you think he wanted to pull that work shirt over his head. “You people are so polite,” he murmured at one point… the rest of it trailed off.

About 30 minutes in, LaMontagne invited his opening act, The Secret Sisters, to join him for a couple of songs from one of his formative records, The Byrds’ 1968 country-rock classic Sweethearts of the Rodeo. After his awkward spoken homage, the quartet performed “Hickory Wind” and “Blue Canadian Rockies” — with none of the plucky lope of the originals. Furthermore, The Secret Sisters’ harmonies, presumably beautiful, were barely audible.

And so it went. “Beg, Steal or Borrow” (which LaMontagne borrowed — or stole — from Joni Mitchell), “Lavender,” “Burn,” “In My Own Way,” “Old Before Your Time” and the rest. Mostly slow, pretty songs played inwardly, without intensity.

Here was another show in Ray LaMontagne’s “Just Passing Through” tour. Yep, that’s what he calls it. His words, not mine.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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