PORTLAND, Maine — When the lights dim and Ray LaMontagne steps up to the microphone, his dusky voice filling the venue like smoke rings, all attention is on the singer-songwriter front and center. Suddenly, though, the eye starts to drift over to the man maybe 6 feet from the show’s star. Just outside the spotlight’s glare is Zachariah Hickman, working over his upright bass and adding delicate harmonies to LaMontagne’s lead vocals.
That was the scene here earlier this week at the Cumberland County Civic Center. It’s Tuesday, the first night of La-Montagne’s new tour with Hickman at the helm as its music director, as well as LaMontagne’s bassist and overall right-hand man. (The tour stops for a two-night stand at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Friday and Saturday.)
Hickman is likely not a known figure at this Portland performance, but he’s a staple in Boston’s roots music community as the consummate sideman. He has forged a nearly 15-year career here working with some of the scene’s most distinguished artists. He’s also a longtime member of Josh Ritter’s band and plays with Barnstar!, his own bluegrass ensemble.
Hickman and LaMontagne go back a few years, having met in 2009 when La-Montagne toured the UK with Ritter. Hickman made enough of an impression that, in 2012, LaMontagne invited him to tour together as an acoustic duo. It was just the two of them, LaMontagne on guitar and Hickman on a rotation of instruments that added subtle but supple textures to the songs.
“I just had fun watching him from the side of the stage and thought his energy was so positive — and there was so much of it,” LaMontagne says of their first meeting. “But what I didn’t realize about Zack then is how invested he is in what he’s doing. There’s a lot of great players in the world, but someone like Zack is very rare. He’s a multi-instrumentalist but also has the ears of an arranger and brings such heart and investment to the music and everyone he works with.”
Hickman is not sheepish about his place in music. At 35, he occupies a role that can and often does go unnoticed.
“It’s easy to be invisible as a bassist,” he says after Tuesday’s soundcheck on a stroll en route to oysters and lobster rolls. “I didn’t want that to be the case with me.”
Let’s be honest: Hickman is pretty hard to miss, known as much for his musical prowess as his personal style. He’s something of a Southern dandy, perhaps even a circus ringmaster on his fancier days. His refined taste in attire — suit jacket, vest, simple tie, pocket square, freshly oiled boots — goes hand in hand with the curlicue mustache that gets him noticed well beyond Boston as “that guy who plays with Josh Ritter.”
He’s had the signature ’stache, which comes this close to curling into the sign for infinity, for the better part of 15 years. It’s still turning heads. As Hickman crosses the street recently in Jamaica Plain, on his way to Dimension Sound Studios to mix the forthcoming Barnstar! record, a burly man in a truck calls out, “Hey, that’s a great mustache!” To which Hickman says quietly to a reporter, “Yeah, I hear that a lot.” He shrugs.
Hickman seems oblivious (or maybe it’s just his Southern modesty) to the fact that he’s a star who happened to make his name on the sidelines. He plays a supporting role that’s crucial to the main event. To hear Hickman tell it, music was always his destiny, and it was a journey he began before he even knew it. He didn’t grow up with much music in the family household, but his parents, both of whom are physicians who still live in his hometown of Lynchburg, Va., nurtured his creative side.
They started him on the Suzuki method of piano instruction before he was 3, and Hickman has memories of going to bed with a tape player giving him an earful of Bach. The point wasn’t to breed the next giant of classical music, though. “It was all auditory synapse development,” he says.
Either way, that early exposure ignited in Hickman a quality you could call obsessive. At a young age he was already hungry to explore musical ideas, learning several instruments before he ever mastered a single one. Holed up in his bedroom one summer with a Casio keyboard, he taught himself what he later realized was music theory. He joined his school’s marching band as a classical tuba player, and at 13 he sweet-talked his mother into buying him an electric bass, mostly out of peer pressure.
“This guy who was cooler than I was wanted me to be the bass player in his band,” Hickman says. “I said yes and then I had to look up what a bass was. I told everyone I was a bass player in a band for about seven months.”
When he finally dedicated himself to the instrument, his education took him to Eastman School of Music and Jazz Aspen Snowmass, programs with strong jazz instruction that enabled him to learn from some of the genre’s masters, such as bassists Ray Brown and Christian McBride.
Hickman’s Medford home, too, is a shrine to the rapturous nature of his interest. His collection of instruments is sprawling enough to warrant an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of them; he estimates he has upward of 70 instruments — from legitimate (pump organs) to absurd (an electric bass in the shape of a black scorpion, complete with claws and stinger tail) — threatening to overtake his 800 square feet.
Eschewing traditional wisdom to move to New York, he landed in Boston in 2001, figuring it would be a good home base since Ritter was also moving here around the same time. Since then, Hickman has been the proverbial man about town, working especially in folk and jazz circles. He’s been at the heart of the local songwriter scene, playing with the likes of Jess Klein, the Tarbox Ramblers, Dietrich Strause, and countless others. He’s also dabbled as a producer for Rose Cousins, Laura Cortese, Miss Tess, and Mark Erelli (one of his bandmates in Barnstar!).
Matt Smith, the managing director of Club Passim, has watched Hickman evolve with various bands that have played the venerable Harvard Square venue. Whereas Hickman calls himself “the band Dad in most situations, whether I’m asked to be or not,” Smith says you can’t overstate the role Hickman plays in the local music scene.
“There’s no better leader than Zack Hickman,” Smith says. “He’s going to get everybody involved. You sometimes feel that 1) You don’t have a choice, but then 2) You’re so OK with that. He’s like the puppet master, the hub of the wheel. There’s a handful of people in this scene who are really the focal point where it’s not necessarily their thing, but they’re involved in all things and in making them better. They elevate the entire scene simply by being part of it.”
Ritter, who has known Hickman since they were baby-faced students at Oberlin College (he was 20, Hickman was 18), echoes that sentiment.
“Zack is kind of like the rock in a weary land. No matter what is going on around him, he’s there,” Ritter says. “That’s a remarkable quality about Zack. He’s also a clear musical genius who really sees what you’re going for and adds to that, without dragging you in another direction unless he feels it’s necessary. I think his personal pride comes from being able to do that really well.”
Now, as the guy in charge of LaMontagne’s new tour, Hickman has his hands full with one of the most high-profile gigs he’s ever had. He set up the tour rehearsals (at Q Division Studios in Somerville); rearranged some of LaMontagne’s older material to feel more in synch with the shimmering, lush aesthetic of LaMontagne’s new album, “Supernova”; and, with LaMontagne’s approval, assembled the touring band. On a technical level, Hickman has had input in how the band is set up on stage, plus the purchasing of new equipment for the road and numerous other administrative tasks.
He feels at home behind the scenes, and if you don’t know Hickman’s name, chances are you’ll at least remember the passion he brings to his performances. That’s fine by him; it’s why he got into music in the first place.
“Everyone has their skill set. I think I’m making pretty good use of mine,” Hickman says. “I’m not a great singer or super-great songwriter, but I’m good at organizing people, I’m reliable, and I really love performing. I’ve been trying to figure out my weird little corner of the music business, and I think I’ve found it.”
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