Ray LaMontagne

Austin City Limits Festival

September 18, 2004

Ray LaMontagne cried onstage. His body heaved backward as he pulled breath in. His face got red as it tensed up, and then the horror of horrors cry came out his mouth. I’ve heard the horror of horrors heartbroken cry from performers before, but the singer/songwriter had his whole body invested in it. And his voice just kept going, like he was intentionally trying to exhaust himself. This is how he won the crowd at the Austin City Limits Festival Saturday afternoon.

After the song and applause, LaMontagne took a break to wipe his face with a towel. It became obvious after ten seconds, though, that he wasn’t just wiping sweat from his face. He was coming down from a moment and clearing tears away. LaMontagne raised his face to the crowd with the smallest amount of embarrassment, and after a few seconds when people realized what was happening, it was like an unspoken simultaneous wave of compassion and sympathy went from the crowd to LaMontagne. People talk about being “for real.” He was “for real.”

LaMontagne has become known for expending himself at performances, so much so that he asked his booking agent to give him a few days in between shows to fully recover. The crowd was grateful for his passion. They started acting as his mother. One person yelled, “Drink some water” when LaMontagne looked tired. Then, as he was putting the bottle down, a woman yelled, “One more.” Everyone laughed, LaMontagne shrugged his shoulders in agreement and defeat, and then he took one more swig. The majority of LaMontagne’s songs were about lost love. One upbeat number was thrown in for good measure.

LaMontagne was working in a shoe factory in Maine years ago. He heard Stephen Stills’ “Tree Top Flyer” on the radio, and it was at that moment he decided he wanted to be a musician. By 1999, he had compiled ten songs onto a demo tape, which got him signed to Chrysalis Records. This fall, he released his first album, entitled “Trouble.” Even though all of the songs were written in a time of heartbreak, LaMontagne decided to put all of himself back into that place for his performance Saturday. It was something to see.

LaMontagne is a great songwriter, and he had a beautiful voice. I think we’ll be hearing more from him in the future. If the crowd hadn’t already been standing, they would have given him a standing ovation.

In the middle of the set, a man yelled, “Are you happy, Ray?” LaMontagne thought for a second and said, “Yeah. Life’s good.”

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