In the art-deco Fox Theater of Oakland, you would expect nothing more than a perfect night. The venue sets the tone with an air of comfort, class, and cultivation unmatched by most theaters nowadays. It only makes sense that someone with talent as great as Ray LaMontagne would choose this as a stop on their tour. The crowd shuffled into the strategically placed seats throughout the theater, claiming their spot for a much anticipated show. Those who showed up early had the privilege of listening to the opener, The Belle Brigade, who recently released their latest album Just Because. With a sound comparable to Paul Simon, The Belle Brigade really finds their roots in California rock music. The brother and sister duo of Ethan and Barbara Gruska were absolutely amazing on drums and vocals, and really could have been the headliner if they performed longer. After leaving the stage, the Gruskas returned to accompany Ray LaMontagne and his other bandmates. As Ray emerged the crowd went wild, shouting things like “We love you Ray!” and “Let me have your babies!” — I believe I heard that come out of a man’s mouth. It was apparent that there were some true fans in this audience. Ray began with his classic soft, sweet melodies, like “Pick Up a Gun,” from his new album Supernova, eventually transitioning into the title track, “Supernova.” With every song came a new moving image across the large screen behind the band. Its swirling colors and changing shapes had the viewership of twenty somethings mesmerized from start to finish.
For those who have never heard Ray LaMontagne, the best way to describe him is a raspy, folk version of Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20 set to the music of The Eagles. And if you’re looking for a visual to put with that description, picture a younger version of the man who plays banjo on the bayou of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. It sounds completely strange, but there are few things that compare to the distinct look and sound of Ray LaMontagne in this world. He took us for a ride with another new song, “Airwaves,” which he followed with a song where he made many weird noises with his mouth. If anyone was wondering, Ray LaMontagne does do all his own stunts.
My favorite song of the night by far was “Ojai,” which describes the struggle of being lost in life and not being able to return to the place where you thought you once belonged. For all the California natives, the chorus sings, “Hitchin’ a ride down the PCH,” the road that truly can bring anyone from SoCal home if they follow it far enough down the coast. The spirit of his music and his lyrics enveloped the crowd in an unexplainable cloud of serenity. Of course that doesn’t last for long when his next song is “Repo Man,” which can easily be placed in the rock section of his repertoire. His range of expertise is best shown through his song “Smashing,” which is exactly that. It twists and turns through slow and fast riffs, with the refrain taking the audience on an auditory rollercoaster. After all this, Ray LaMontagne decided to speak his first words to the audience, “It’s nice to see you. It means a lot to me.” Simple words spoken by a simple man, who clearly wants his fans to hear nothing more than sweet music.
He dismissed the rest of his band and began a series of numbers accompanied by only his bassist. “Burn,” which is from his previous album, Trouble, was the first of these songs and every loyal fan in the audience was singing right along with him. He then proceeded with “Trouble” and “Jolene,” which really got the audience going. People began standing up and clapping to the beat, dancing with the people next to the them. Then the mood completely shifted as the band rejoined to play “Meg White” which features the bass line of The White Stripes’ classic “Seven Nation Army” in between lyrics. This was nothing like what he had played just earlier. This was a whole new Ray. There were a few more tunes about women named Julia, or Caroline, or someone else that he lost — and then he simply walked off stage.
After a bit of a wait, Ray reappeared on stage and walked up to the mic and smiled. “You know, I want to sing something.” Suddenly the show was back on again and it took yet another turn. A very country song, one of Ray’s earliest, “Hey Me, Hey Mama,” got the crowd back on their feet and dancing to the music. It was just enough for him to play the hell out of his final song “Drive-In Movies.” This time everyone was on their feet cheering. It was the perfect end to a night that left me just wanting to sing something too.
Photos by Annelise Kostrencich / Staff