Ray LaMontagne is giving us the cold shoulder. He declined an invitation to do a Newsroom Sessions performance (fair enough, I know the day of a show can be tight schedule-wise; he plays Tuesday at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland) and a request for an interview by my colleague.
I’ve spent a good chunk of time listening to his new album, “Supernova,” and think it’s the best thing he’s done since his debut, making this feel all the more personal. But it’s really not about me, it’s about the city. Portland is where LaMontagne cut his teeth.
He played sporadically from 1999 to 2003 in Portland venues. With every gig, more fans and booking agents realized that LaMontagne was someone special. By 2003, he had performed at the Maine Festival in Brunswick, the Old Port Festival, Space Gallery, the St. Lawrence Arts Center and other locales. When LaMontagne opened for David Crosby at Sugarloaf in 2003 and for John Hiatt at Merrill Auditorium in 2004, he was on his way.
The first time I saw him was in November 2003 in the CD release show for “Greetings from Area Code 207, Volume 4” at Asylum in Portland. There I was in a half-full room watching some of the acts on this album perform, when a soft-spoken bearded chap took the stage with his acoustic guitar. I had known his name at this point for just a few weeks. At the time, he went by Raycharles LaMontagne.
His song on the CD is “Still Can’t Feel the Gin” and when he performed it at Asylum that night I couldn’t believe my ears. It was one of those rare moments when you hear someone and know with every fiber in your being that they’re destined for some semblance of greatness.
Some months later, I saw LaMontagne again, when he headlined at The Center for Cultural Exchange (now One Longfellow Square). There were about 75 people in the audience, including two well-dressed gents with British accents. I’m not known for shyness, so I waltzed right to them and said, “OK, you two, fess up. Who are you and what are you doing here?” Turns out they were from the London branch of Island Records and had flown in for the sole purpose of seeing this show.
LaMontagne’s performance was intense, enthralling and even had some funny moments. I chatted briefly with him after the show and he was sweet, shy and appreciative.
LaMontagne’s debut album, “Trouble,” was released less than a year later on RCA Records. Next came “Till the Sun Turns Black” in 2006, “Gossip in the Grain” in 2008, the Grammy-winning “God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise” in 2010, and “Supernova” a couple of weeks ago.
In 2010, he played two sold-out shows at Merrill Auditorium. The one I saw was sensational and my review reflected that: “His acoustic guitar was blazing, and his vocals were in superb form. The crowd was ignited, and the pilot light never went out.” LaMontagne was both the king and mayor of the city for those two nights and the titles were bestowed upon him in the form of audience adoration. I’m sure a similar greeting awaits him Tuesday at the Cumberland County Civic Center. The show is close to selling out.
LaMontagne left Maine for Massachusetts a few years back, but his early fans know this is where he decided to make music his life. This is where he found his voice, where he played his first shows and where he won so many of us over with the kind of raspy voice we haven’t heard the likes of since.
As long as LaMontagne still makes music I like, I’ll keep listening. But man alive, the 15 minutes it would have taken to talk to us would have gone a long way in showing us that he remembers where it all started. Because we most certainly do.
Sometimes in magazine stories it sounds like Ray LaMontagne is from Maine, sometimes it sounds like he’s not. Here are the basics that tie LaMontagne to the Pine Tree State.