Ryan Montbleau finds his own way

This year is a chance for Ryan Montbleau to reintroduce himself to fans following the December farewell shows by his franchise Ryan Montbleau Band.
This year is a chance for Ryan Montbleau to reintroduce himself to fans following the December farewell shows by his franchise Ryan Montbleau Band.

CAMBRIDGE — When Ryan Montbleau settles in for the first of three nights of solo acoustic shows at Club Passim on Wednesday, audiences will catch a whiff of the past and a glimpse of the future at the same time.

These solo shows in Harvard Square, not far from the site of the old House of Blues club where he got his first on-the-job training in the music business, are a bit of a tradition. But this year it’s also a chance for Montbleau to reintroduce himself to fans following the December farewell shows by his franchise Ryan Montbleau Band.

The amicable split of that group, which had seen turnover before but maintained key personnel over a decade of touring and recording, is forcing “a big, major, 10-year turning point” in his life and career, Montbleau says.


Now he’s not sure what’s coming next.

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“It’s been really great and we had a lot of momentum and grew a lot,” he says on the phone from Costa Rica, where he was scheduled to play a festival date, “and it got really strong, and now all of a sudden the whole thing just naturally drifted apart — for some really good reasons.”

Within two months last year, founding keyboardist Jason Cohen and guitarist Lyle Brewer both served notice to Montbleau that they’d be moving on, citing their desire to get off the road and spend more time with their families. The unit hung together for a summer tour, but the operation pretty much came to a halt thereafter. Two shows at the Paradise near the end of the year sat alone on the schedule.

The good will among all parties seems evident; Brewer will open one of the Passim shows, and Cohen even returned to the mix for the Costa Rican show.

Montbleau isn’t looking to plug in the vacancies with replacements. Though he may play with some of the gang again in the future, the Ryan Montbleau Band itself as he knew it — an entity with a musical personality refined since the days of a weekly open jam in a Gloucester bar — seems to be over.


“Because we didn’t have a fall tour, because we had to shut down the machine, we had to shut down people’s salaries. Those guys for the first time in 10 years had to figure out something else. So even the guys who didn’t leave the band,” Montbleau explains, “did these major life things that they needed to do for themselves. I know they want to continue on in some way but everything’s up in the air.”

This means Montbleau, 36, is charting his future musical path on a blank slate. After a decade wrapping his soulful vocals around the gently funky, road-tested rock of this band, the Peabody native might build another full band, start a trio project, or something else entirely.

Most of his career as a professional musician has been spent playing with his eponymous group, so the change offers more than a logistical kink. It’s an artistic challenge. (A 2012 album cut with the cream of New Orleans session players offers one vision of what he might sound like in a different context.)

“The band that built up over the years really made kind of this cradle around me, this nest for me and my songs and it got really fleshed out and muscular. The band really took on its own life,” he says. “As much as it was my band and I helped build the machine, the machine kind of took me along with it after a while too. Now I’m getting back to square one and writing for myself.”

Montbleau didn’t conceive of a life as a musician until right around the time he graduated from college. He started his rock club job shortly afterward, working mainly in the box office but also scrubbing the bar, selling merchandise, and generally getting a ground-level view of the world of touring bands. He’d play open mike nights at The Kells in Allston and The Burren in Somerville, he says, and a job substitute teaching at Peabody’s high school added to the mix. He’d take any gig he could get, including sports bars where his percussive but introspective songs may have made a strange fit.


Along the way, he developed a writing style — and, later, a sound — that seems built for summer festivals and sits comfortably at an intersection of genres. “I’m a singer-songwriter who’s been kicking around the jam band world,” he says.

Martin Sexton, the charismatic songsmith who walks a similar line, has taken on the Ryan Montbleau Band as a backing group, and produced a 2010 album for the band. “Whether in the studio, on the stage, or on the tour bus, Ryan brings joy and creativity with his songs and voice — always a true soul man,” Sexton writes in an e-mail.

The Passim shows will be followed by a string of solo acoustic shows opening for Galactic, and others headlining at venues he’s only played before in the comfort of his old band.

“I can’t hit them over the head with a beat, I need to really draw them in with the lyrics and touch them that way,” he says of his approach to these shows.

And along the way, perhaps he’ll get intimations of which path to follow next.

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.