With the theater located just a few blocks from the Jacksonville Landing waterfront and the sun still out at show time, a vernal vibe filled the air as concertgoers basked in the picture-perfect day on the First Coast just before filing into the historic Florida Theater. Those who attended the concert would experience a bit of a sea change upon entering the famed 1927 Mediterranean-style theatre for an evening of autumnal music straight from the farm.
The opening act was 19-year-old Ohioan Jessica Lea Mayfield, a uniquely abstract artist with vocals along the lines of Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval or Zooey Deschanel of She & Him. Mayfield's performance was incredibly polished and surprisingly mature for such a young artist. Mayfield's compositions are both intriguing and listenable and her animated band made the show all the more enjoyable to watch. "I Can't Lie To You, Love" had drummer Anne Lillis flailing away like an octopus with restless arm syndrome, while guitarist Richie Kirkpatrick's atmospheric Neil Young riffs complemented Mayfield's oftentimes haunting vocals brilliantly. Despondent yet hopefully melodic, most of Mayfield's songs seem to describe relationship complexities only seen in Hollywood. Nevertheless, the singer's sincere delivery surely makes you wonder if they could be autobiographical as she ironically sang, "I love the sound of you walking away," in "For Today," perhaps the most notable tune from her acclaimed debut, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt. The theatre was just reaching capacity as Mayfield's set ended for a short intermission.
Shortly after 9:00 p.m., Ray LaMontagne, dressed in a denim button-down and jeans, took the stage to uproarious applause and was quietly shrouded in an unassuming glow of blue light. The crowd hushed to pin-drop volume and LaMontagne picked a simple riff while playing harmonica before stepping into "All the Wild Horses" from his debut record, Trouble. A sign of a great songwriter, LaMontagne painted a picture with the lyrics of "Winter Birds," a pastoral tune about rural romance that includes the bittersweet verse:
Though all these things will change
The memories will remain
As green to gold and gold to brown
The leaves will fall to feed the ground
And in their falling make no sound
Oh my lady, lady, I am loving you now
Still alone on-stage, the third song, "Burn," received the largest reaction of the night to this point. Bassist Jennifer Condos joined LaMontagne on-stage for a take on "Jolene." The rest of the band took the stage for "Empty," a song with an ironically up-beat melody contrasting with the high, lonesome whine of the pedal steel of Eric Heywood (Son Volt, The Pretenders), a pure tone that would rule the night. After finally introducing his road mates, the band ripped through "Hey Me, Hey Mama," a brand new good-time, boom/tap '50s style country tune from Gossip in the Grain that had Heywood digging below the deepest register to add backing vocals. Equal parts tongue-in-cheek and rough-and-tumble, "Hey Me" fits in the Music Row tradition as a song about unconditional love for mama. As songwriter Alice Randall once told me, country music is "a hard music for a hard people or cliché music for a sentimental people... just three chords and the truth," and LaMontagne and his band played this one like seasoned honky-tonk vets.
I always knew that you were crazy
Always knew you could be cruel
Still, I would do just about anything
In the world for you
The downtrodden hit single "Let It Be Me" came next, followed by a beautifully assembled version of "Hold You In My Arms," a lustrous feel-good ballad that changed the vibe of the night thereafter. Although LaMontagne's voice and deftly sentimental lyrics are the main draw, the second half of the concert was just as much about showcasing his bandmates' talent as his own, with the stage lights finally raised so fans could enjoy seeing Heywood's nimble runs on the slide and Jay Bellerose's jazzy bangs on the tom. I was surprised to find that LaMontagne is as lucky to have such a talented band as they are to play for such a vocally talented rising star.
The most memorable moment of the night came during "I Still Care for You," a plea to a lost lover that had LaMontagne and Condos singing the title words in a cinematic, meaningful way in perfect harmony with the weepy steel riff. It was a moment that words cannot do justice. A candy apple red hue overtook the stage as Mr. LaMontagne sang his ode to White Stripes drummer "Meg White," a song that is perhaps an attempt to prove that he is not all business or possibly a teenage fantasy song that he never had the chance to write. A loungy "You Are the Best Thing" and "Shelter" followed before "Trouble," which closed out the set. Although by no means a flashy display, there was a subtle extra bit of oomph in LaMontagne's performance on this final tune.
The crowd brought LaMontagne, Heywood, Bellerose and Condos back for a couple more tunes. The cryptic "Til the Sun Turns Black" was a cool closer and LaMontagne's way of saying that those who simply focus on living and loving and not the frivolous temptations of the world will find virtue in life. Although enigmatic in its delivery, the tune was delivered with unquestionable poignancy. It's refreshing to find hope in a seemingly apocalyptic tune. LaMontagne gave a simple "thank you, good night," house lights came on and the crowd dispersed.
If you are looking for an ostentatious rocker or a fuzzy sing-along, then a LaMontagne show is not for you. The earthy frontman is as candid as he is endearing, and just plain comes off as a likeable guy with no pretense or strings attached. In many ways it was refreshing to see a concert where the sole focus was the music at hand. Undoubtedly by design, there was no flash photography, not much chatter and a subdued visual display, allowing fans to focus on the intricacies of the music and the powerful lyrics. As expected, LaMontagne's sandpaper voice mesmerized the audience from the get go and the building remained eerily quiet throughout the performance with the exception of a few bumptious females shouting out the standard, "I love you, Ray!" and some surly dudes shouting, "You rule!" There is a reason why a hoarse singer with almost no formal musical training is able to pack the seats every night. On Tuesday in Jacksonville, a couple thousand people found out why.
Ray LaMontagne :: 04.28.09 :: Florida Theater :: Jacksonville, FL
All The Wild Horses, Winter Birds, Burn, Jolene, Empty, Hey Me, Hey Mama, Let It Be Me, Hold You, Henry Nearly Killed Me (It's A Shame), You Can Bring Me Flowers, I Still Care For You, Meg White, You Are The Best Thing, Shelter, Trouble
Encore: Achin', Til The Sun Turns Black