With joyous whoops and devotional howls filling the Orpheum air in between songs Friday, it sounded like the cult of Ray LaMontagne is blossoming into the church of Ray LaMontagne.
At the first of two sold-out concerts, LaMontagne was mesmerizing as he worked through a two-hour performance of knotted, tangled, and tumultuous songs, each delivered with a calm intensity.
LaMontagne’s appreciation for bygone simplicity extended beyond stage décor featuring a Gramophone and backdrop of old doors and windows; you felt it in the songs themselves, with vintage Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Van Morrison reflected in the work.
LaMontagne did not hide the fact that he learns from past masters’ songs as he shapes his own voice, conveying how “One Lonesome Saddle” was his stab at writing like Townes van Zandt.
Acoustic bassist Zack Hickman accompanied LaMontagne, who played acoustic guitars and a bit of harmonica. This lean arrangement revealed how well LaMontagne has come into his own voice. “New York City Is Killing Me,” “Beg, Steal, and Borrow” and “You Are the Best Thing” were among the songs stripped of various accoutrements present on their recorded versions yet were even more resonant live as LaMontagne grows more subtly assertive with each passing tour; he couldn’t help but admit that he sang the bejeezus out of “Trouble,” a relatively simple song that he turned thunderous, in response to an audience member's request for it after it was already played ("You must have been getting a beer," was LaMontagne's theory)
“One Lonesome Saddle,” written for but left off of the “Trouble” album, was among the rarities included in the show. “Roses and Cigarettes” was another orphaned song — this one from “Gossip in the Grain” sessions — included in the far-reaching set.
In resurrecting “Lesson Learned,” LaMontagne told how this was one of the few of his songs closely tied to real experiences — its bruises explaining why he tucked the tune away after recording it — but for the most part songs are vehicles for his imagination which in turn transport listeners (all of this wrapped in funny barbs about music critics and Rolling Stone magazine).
LaMontagne ably backed his viewpoint with the harrowing “Empty,” swaggering “Repo Man,” and roguish “Jolene,” each different in mood but distinctly LaMontagne in style.
“Like Rock & Roll and Radio” made for a chilling finale, an elaborate declaration of feeling lonely and out of step that ironically knitted together an audience as congregation.