I first heard Ray Lamontagne, who will perform on the Bangor Waterfront Thursday evening, in the fall of 2006 after a friend passed along to me his album “Trouble.“ She told me Lamontagne and his music were, and I quote, “really sexy, in a sensitive guy in the woods kind of way, and he’s from Maine.” I was sold before I’d even heard him.
But then I did listen, and while I agreed with my friend’s assessment, I found there was a lot more to him than her description led me to believe. Yes, on the surface there’s something extremely appealing about him — the beard, the raspy voice, the shy, sensitive-yet-masculine vibe. He seems like someone who would chop wood for the fire and scare bears off the porch, and then write a beautiful song for you. And again, he’s from Maine. Always a bonus.
But much more than that, Ray Lamontagne is just a really good songwriter and musician. He’s self-taught, and he didn’t come to songwriting until his mid-to-late 20s — there’s that famous story that while working in a shoe factory in Lewiston he heard Stephen Stills’ song “Treetop Flyer” on the radio and had a revelation. He had plenty of time to amass wisdom and life experience, which he then brought to his songs — each one, in its own way, a tough, tender expression of the things that move you, be it love, loneliness, frustration, or simply navigating the complex emotions that accompany daily life.
Starting with “Trouble,” Lamontagne established himself as a major new artist, calling on the rambling, heartfelt, country-influenced spirit of great ’60s and ’70s bands like Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Gram Parsons and the Band, combined with the jazzy poetry of Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. “Trouble” wouldn’t have been out of place in 1971; that it held up just as well in 2004 speaks to the timelessness of music from that era.
He took an interesting stylistic turn with his next album, “Till the Sun Turns Black,” released in 2006. Though the acoustic foundation remained, Lamontagne’s music became more cinematic, more shaded in light and dark, with string arrangements fleshing out the sparser bits. “Gossip in the Grain” followed in 2008 and showcases even more soul and jazz influence in his music, further underscoring the Van Morrison connection. “Gossip” could be the New England sister album to Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” only separated by four decades. On a personal note, it boasts the song “You Are the Best Thing,” a song that my husband and I chose to play during our wedding. So I suppose I’m a little biased.
“God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise,” Lamontagne’s 2010 effort, brought that elegant country shuffle back and netted him his first Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. He’ll undoubtedly play plenty of songs from that latest album at his concert on the Bangor Waterfront Thursday evening. It’s always nice to welcome a fellow Mainer who’s done well to town, especially when they’re someone as talented as Ray. And even though that initial reaction to him and his music remains with me — let’s face it, ladies, Ray Lamontagne is, in fact, very sexy — I’m more invested in the fact that he’s the real deal, musically speaking.
Ray Lamontagne and his band, the Pariah Dogs, will perform Thursday evening on the Bangor Waterfront. Special guests include singer-songwriter Brandi Carlisle, known for her powerful voice and guitar chops, and the duo the Secret Sisters, who play charming, old-timey country pop. Gates open at 5 p.m. Tickets are $35-$55 and are available at the gate the day of the show. For information, visit waterfrontconcerts.com.