Singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne, the little man with a voice as big as his home state of Maine, comes off at first like a guy who would just as soon be singing alone in the basement of his house with his eyes closed than standing alone on the intimidating expanse of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House stage.
On Tuesday, at first, it seemed he was. There was LaMontagne, all by his lonesome, standing in just a small pool of light with his acoustic guitar(s), singing those sandy, smoky love ballads of his. When he stopped once mid-song, he even seemed to startle himself. “Sometimes I forget there are people in the room,” he said by way of apology to the 1,500 or so before him.
Turns out, dude likes to talk. No one likes a stoic, but LaMontagne transitioned nearly every song with stream of consciousness tangents on everything from his jailed brother to his “poor, (bleeped)-up mother.” He dropped names like Elvis Costello, John Prine, Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson.
Much of the banter was endearing to his audience, like when he said, “I’m just enjoying being here in Denver because Los Angeles is next,” to cheers. He’s a deprecating and thoughtful sort. But at one point he went on so long that one interrupting woman entreated him to “Just play it, Ray.”
This to a man who had the ladies swooning before his first note. He entered, grizzled and flannel-free, to a chorus of competing “I love yous” that built throughout the night until one woman unfortunately blurted, “We’re making babies tonight, Ray.”
(One disadvantage to playing in a hall with perfect acoustics: Everyone can hear every idiotic thing everyone else in the room says).
The choice of venue did have many wondering. You might think this enormous stage built for gigantic theatrical productions would swallow any one man whole. Tuesday’s show was declared a sellout way back on Aug. 24, when Wednesday’s second date was added. But the orchestra section closest to the stage looked only about half full.
LaMontagne’s stop at the Ellie follows a series of performances at symphony halls accompanied by full orchestras, and one can only imagine what kind of heaven that would have been like here, in one of the world’s premiere new opera houses. Instead LaMontagne, now on his third tour in support of his breakout “Gossip in the Grain,” is in the midst of a series of stripped-down acoustic shows like this one.
Still, the man with the singular voice had no trouble filling the Ellie with evocative, visceral songs of demon-wrestling, burden-bearing, running away and, of course, love. He’s plainly a man not just obsessed with finding love – but finding the meaning of it.
LaMontagne is, of course, best known for his lament to an unsecured love, “Let it Be Me.” But Costello recently opined to LaMontagne, he told us, that his signature song is really “Jolene.”
Tuesday’s set also included covers of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” and Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits of My Labor”), which LaMontagne called one of the greatest songs ever written.
All delivered with that distinctive, raspy voice that sounds like no one else. Except maybe Joe Cocker. Or Ted Hawkins after a windy day at Venice Beach. Or Otis Redding after a few hundred packs of smokes. But we digress.
LaMontagne’s effectiveness as a writer, his command as a singer and his hold on his audience are undeniable every time he opens his mouth to sing songs infused with folk, blues, country and soul. His lyrics are pocked with tender, naked proclamations (“Everything I have I will give to you”) set amid scenes rich with vivid imagery (“The clouds crack and growl like some great cat on the prowl”).
Tuesday’s set built beautifully to “Burn,” a song that leaves the singer with his heart on his sleeve and blood on the floor. What better way to go out?
Playing at the Ellie afforded the most crystalline sound a solo singer (or his audience) could ever hope to have anywhere in the world. The cost: Everything else. Sitting in an opera house is not conducive to having any fun: Bow-tied old ushers threatening to confiscate your cell phone. No one daring to stand up until show’s end. This was a inordinately well-behaved crowd that, when it comes to the Opera House, was most likely just visiting.
One confused nearby woman was wracking her brain trying to figure out where she sat in this same theater just a few days ago to see the touring Broadway musical, “Wicked,” which didn’t even play in the Ellie (it was housed in the Buell Theater next door). There’s just something discombobulating about having a concert here.
A night with the Pixies — or “Wicked” — this was not.
It was a night to sit back and be seduced by a masterful songwriter amid unheard-of creature concert comforts. Not a bad alternative.
Tuesday was also a bit of a homecoming for the singularly monikered Lissie, a pitch-perfect solo folker from Rock Island, Ill., who went to college at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. She looks a lot like Rickie Lee Jones and sounds at times like anyone from Shania Twain to Janis Joplin. Her range is huge, drawing especially robust applause for her cover of Hank Williams’ “Wedding Bells.”
Aching All The Time
Loretta (Townes Van Zandt cover)
Let It Be Me
Fruits of My Labor (Lucinda Williams cover)
You Are the Best Thing
All the Wild Horses
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Evan Semón is a Denver freelance photographer and regular contributor to Reverb. See more his work here.