It's an ambitious solo artist (or a solo artist's ambitious management) that books two consecutive dates at such a venerable institute as the Royal Albert Hall, especially when most of that artist's fan base still don't really know how to pronounce his name. In any case, by the time legendary alt. country producer Ethan Johns arrived on stage to entertain Ray LaMontagne's (pronounced /laːm�'nˈteɪːn/, according to Wikipedia) audience with acoustic styled country love ballads, the Hall was looking disconcertingly bare.
After Johns had dutifully filled his slot with what can only really be described as amenable warm up patter, it was time for Josh Ritter to woo the crowd with his own particular brand of alt. country, (what a manner of sins that genre covers!), yet woo he did. With the type of closed harmonies usually found in barber shop quartets, Ritter, his guitarist and a truly adventurous double bass player performed a choice selection from his extensive back catalogue, ranging from the soft protest of the Dylanesque 'Girl In The War' to the vitriolic barnstorm of 'Harrisburg', before closing with 'Kathleen', vamped up in true glorious style.
During Ritter's support act, the rest of the seats had been filled by audience members, either drawn to the country troubadour's engaging performance or capitulating to the polite but incredibly firm warnings from the overhead speakers, announcing that Ray was soon to take the stage. When he arrived, complete with a full backing band he could see that his prestigious name, no matter how difficult to enunciate, had managed to fill the house. Opening with the sparse epic that is 'Be Here Now', he moved quickly on to 'Empty', which, as fans will know, are the inaugural two tracks on his second album 'Till The Sun Turns Black'. Uh oh. This wasn't going to be one of those gigs that sounds as if someone has just put the CD on really loud, was it? Never fear, for as soon as he had cut loose those two beautiful albatrosses from his proverbial neck, La Montagne led his band through a set that at once soared, floated, touched and crushed the audience with emotion, with the music of a seasoned bluesman, lyrics of a heartbroken vagabond and the voice of a dusky angel.
Set highlights were not the ones that were to be expected; sure, hits like 'Trouble' and 'Three More Days' were delivered with the style and panache that one expects from a performer who has spent the better part of a decade on the road, but it was the 'album' tracks that turned out to be the real gems, with 'Till The Sun Turns Black' offering the audience a five minute exposure to the type of open heart surgery only available to man and a microphone. His reputation for not engaging his audience with the standard 'Anyone here from out of town?' fare that many musicians feel it necessary to proffer had obviously proceeded him, with screams of, “Talk to us, Ray!” being warbled by the more restless members of the audience. His own silence was actually the key to quietening these interruptions, allowing his music to speak for him; to the man who began singing 'Wonderwall' at the stage, please return whomever's ticket it was that you stole and never again return to a crowded place, as you are essentially an oxygen thief.
The encore opened with a wonderfully appropriate cover of Dylan's 'The Man In Me', then the desolate 'Jolene' ended what had been a beautiful night, a halcyon, Dorian Gray type of song, one that never grows old no matter how many times it is visited. With LaMontagne's ability to host nights like this night and continually put out such music of pure, unequivocal emotion, perhaps for his next record even two nights at the Royal Albert Hall won't be enough.