Review: Ray LaMontagne, Levon Helm at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater
He might well be music’s new man in black. For a performer who prefers the shadows over the spotlight, Ray LaMontagne radiated enough soul to light up his Ruth Eckerd Hall audience Friday while he performed most of the evening in near-darkness.
He might also well be American music’s unsung folk hero in today’s endless cycle of everybody-is-a-star swill, with songs that embody blues and bluegrass and evoke feelings of both hurt and hope.
Decked out in a khaki vest and hat Friday night, the fully bearded LaMontagne led his four-piece Pariah Dogs into the haunting For the Summer, the newest single from the band’s God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise. Most of the night’s set featured songs from this latest, self-produced record.
Just as the album was recorded live at Ray’s Massachusetts barnhouse earlier this year, his band demonstrated its ability to transport the crowd to those original sessions. Drummer Jay Bellerose threw his body into every stroke without ever overwhelming the songs. He and bassist Jennifer Condos served as the backbone to Eric Heywood’s atmospheric pedal steel guitar work on tunes like Beg Steal or Borrow.
Friday’s LaMontagne show was one of only eight scheduled performances with the Levon Helm Band. There existed plenty of cross-pollination between the groups; LaMontagne called on Helm’s fiddle player during a few songs, and also invited show openers the Secret Sisters, an Alabama vocal duo, to harmonize on several numbers.
Ray’s fire really sparked during some ferocious picking by session guitarist Kevin Barry on Repo Man, and reached its boiling point when Levon Helm’s trombone, sax, and trumpet players took the stage.
“That’s a badass horn section,” Ray said following the applause.
That was the moment the gentle and reserved LaMontagne went into hiding; from then on, Ray’s excitement gave way to the closest thing to dancing we’ll likely ever witness from Americana music’s latest and greatest force. Ray repeatedly bent his right knee, which allowed his toe ample stage space for hard tapping during the outlaw thriller Henry Nearly Killed Me. Ray howled from the gut through his harmonica — yes, through his harmonica and into the microphone — to create a metallic, gritty vocal against the hootenanny backdrop of what became a band of 12 musicians by set’s end.
“This is a song that was recorded very differently than it was written,” Ray said just before he played a powerful, stripped-down version of You Are the Best Thing. It no doubt left many wishing he’d recorded it that way. Ray encored with a couple of classic country covers (Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried and the Davis Sisters’ I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know), and ended his Pariah Dogs set with Hey Me, Hey Mama, a perfectly rootsy number to introduce the man partly responsible for Ray’s passion.
Those who left Ruth Eckerd following LaMontagne’s performance missed out on a rare treat: His biggest musical influence. Levon Helm — whose singing and drumming with The Band influenced generations of performers, including LaMontagne — appeared fragile, but delivered an outstanding performance with his group of 12 members.
Levon didn’t miss a beat all night; vocal cord surgeries have left him with few opportunities to sing lead (he only did so on Ophelia) but the 70-year-old proved his drumming was in top form. Pianist Brian Mitchell sang the classic Band opener The Shape I’m In, while guitarist Teresa Williams and singer Amy Helm (the leader’s daughter) delivered a beautiful version of Lefty Frizzell’s Long Black Veil.
As Levon climbed down from his drum throne to join his band on the mandolin, someone in the audience yelled, “I love you, Levon!” Helm turned to face the crowd, beamed, and with outstretched arms responded with a raspy, “I love you, too!”
The horn section paraded around the stage and delivered these Florida spectators to the French Quarter during the rollicking All on a Mardi Gras Day. Following a guitar solo from Larry Campbell near night’s end, he re-introduced “Brother Ray” to the stage for a passionate rendition of Tears of Rage. The evening’s most poignant moment came when Helm saluted LaMontagne just before the band finished with The Weight. Helm’s not taking a load off yet, but in a way he’s handing over the reigns to this young, already iconic, American singer-songwriter.
LaMontagne looked up at Helm, perched atop his throne for the final number, and slowly rubbed his beard. He might have even smiled. It was too dark to tell.
— Patrick Flanary, tbt*. Photo (not from Friday's show) by David J. Simchock / DavidSimchock.com.