There are few things that can stir up memories like music can. It’s hard to hear a song you love without remembering a time, a place, or, more often than not, a person. At first glance, Ray LaMontagne and David Gray might not seem like they have a whole lot in common, but they both have the gift of writing songs that take you back to those times, those places, and, for better or for worse, those people.
On that thread alone it makes sense that the two spent the summer as tourmates. If the reaction from the crowd at last night’s show at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena was any indication, this gift of LaMontagne’s and Gray’s is ten-fold when playing live. People were laughing, singing and smiling; couples were, well, being couple-y; and a handful of show-goers danced along in a music-induced haze. Simply put, people were in it.
I first saw Ray LaMontagne in 2006 at Ryman Auditorium when I was a junior in high school. I went with my high school boyfriend, who wasn’t too impressed with LaMontagne, which I should have taken as a warning sign early on. Of course, that relationship ended, but of the two men involved, I’m glad the one that lasted was mine with Ray’s music. Ray LaMontagne is the physical embodiment of the word “classic.” His voice is beyond words, like honeyed Nyquil for a restless, world-weary soul; his lyrical storytelling is personal and sincere but still seems universal; and his music manages to channel folk and blues of days past while also remaining relevant.
Soft-spoken and extremely shy, LaMontagne didn’t have much to say between songs other than, “Thank you very much, thank you” (an interesting inversion of another famous guitar-slinger), but he’s the kind of guy who can get away with letting his music speak for him. Backed by his band the Pariah Dogs, LaMontagne’s “Trouble” and “Hold You in My Arms” sound even better live than they do recorded (if that’s in fact possible). He sprinkled in several tunes, like “Repo Man,” “New York City’s Killing Me,” and “Like Rock and Roll and Radio” from his latest record, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, an album which, though it’s only been out a few weeks, most people already seemed more than familiar. He closed his set with 2008’s “You Are the Best Thing” and played 2004’s heart-wrenching tale “Jolene” to a standing ovation, leaving the crowd breathless and ready for what was to come next.
I feel like I grew up with David Gray. “Babylon,” arguably his biggest hit, came out when I was eight years old and ever since he’s had a strong presence in my musical life. This is likely true for a lot of Gray fans, and he paid homage to his nearly two-decade career (and the fans he’s made in the process) by playing a collection of tunes that well-represented its breadth. Though he just released a new record, Foundling, he surprised the crowds with early tracks like 1993’s “Shine,” 1998’s “This Year’s Love,” and, of course, “Babylon,” which got the entire arena singing along. He also brought out a fair share of new material, opening the show with 2009’s “Fugitive” and throwing in crowd favorites like “Jackdaw” and “The One I Love.”
Live, Gray’s songs took on a new life. Most spanned at least six or seven minutes, which could seem a bit long were it not for his talented touring band adding flourishes of guitar or keys behind him. Equally impressive was his voice, which has strength, range and sustain that recordings just don’t do justice. Gray closed his own set with a beautiful version of “Sail Away,” then invited a special guest out to help him with one final song.
For the last song of his encore, Gray brought LaMontagne back on stage to a rousing ovation for an excellent version of the Beatles’ “Dig a Pony,” and with the last chorus of “I’s” the show was over. Their chemistry and passion together on stage showed LaMontagne and Gray to be something like brothers, even if only in song. Musical relationships, unlike high school ones, can and should last a lifetime. If you haven’t yet, I suggest you start one with these guys. They won’t let you down.