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Birmingham Symphony Hall, 29 January 2007

I entered the Symphony Hall not quite knowing what to expect from the notoriously difficult Mr LaMontagne, his recent brushes with music journo's having been somewhat strained. Having joked with my companion for the evening that she'd better be quiet throughout the set or Ray may jump from the stage and smite her I wondered if the darker side of his personality would indeed put in an appearance at some point tonight.

The band shuffled on stage right to a healthy dose of applause and once all seated were counted in from LaMontagne as they tackled the superb opener from the new album, Be Here Now. As song titles go the Oasis comparisons end there, a slow burning song that builds and falls in intensity, perfectly showcasing Lamontagne's songcraft in this impressive setting. And shorn of the beautiful Drake-esqe strings of the album it loses none of it's charm, actually leaving more room for his whispered vocals.

The sound in the Symphony Hall has been much talked up but has to be experienced to fully appreciate fully the clear, crisp quality brought about by state of the art acoustic panelling and sound system. The Dog and Duck backroom PA this certainly isn't.

In all we were treated to most of both album's Till The Sun Turns Black and the modern classic that is Trouble. Most notable for their sheer power and beauty were superb versions of Forever My Friend and How Come from his breakthrough album and from the hauntingly personal recent album You Can Bring Me Flowers and A Lesson Learned shone.

The band went quickly into the next song and we were treated to 2 more songs from 'Till The Sun Turns Black'. Mr Lamontagne must choose to warm up his now famously lauded grizzled howl by choosing less vocally challenging offerings to start with, easing himself into proceedings before finally letting his vocal chords loose in all their glory 4 songs in, and such was the aural impact when he hit the first chorus I was jolted in my seat, as though having been reprimanded by a stern schoolmaster. From there-in I was in awe of Lamontagne's voice, as were the rest of the audience, easily held in thrall, so as to hear the slightest breath of his sandpaper honey whisper as clearly as his most primordial backwoods gravel and molasses roar.

I began to get the impression that even this man's coughing must be in perfect pitch, such was the apparent ease of his singing. Trouble and How Come, his two most well received singles on these shores were played mid set, to rapturous applause.

By now LaMontagne was comfortable enough to exchange some light hearted banter with the crowd, saying on more than one occasion how great it was to be there playing for people. They lapped up his every word and returned his good wishes, one lucky female fan even having her cry of "You're beautiful Ray" returned with equal warmth.

Only the same day I'd read in a very short, ill tempered interview that he said he'd prefer not to have to tour at all.

Encores to all but hoary old rockers are usually no more than 1 or 2 raced through old faithfulls and then off back to the aftershow for fun and games. Something tells me Ray LaMontagne isn't really a one for aftershow partys. As a result we were treated to 4 more songs with his band, including a surprisingly soulful rendition of 'To Love Somebody', even name checking writer Barry Gibb in the intro.

Finally being left alone for a final solo reading of All The Wild Horses, LaMontagne once again seemed vulnerable and uncomfortably shy as he tried to make light conversation whilst fumbling with his harp rack, repeating himself uneasily. At this point I was privately willing him to get on with it and sing the song, so painful was it to watch this great performer struggling with the most basic of sentences.

But then the worm turned, an earlier heckler, having just lurched around like a demented fool to the previous number again began his gentle barracking. This time, without the moral support of his band mates LaMontagne made like a cornered viper and told the heckler in no uncertain terms to "take a f**king hike pal", and upon being emboldened by the audiences whole hearted approval and thunderous applause (including mine) he followed up by telling the protagonist to go and sit in his car and listen to Coldplay. This too drew applause and as the target of his aside was gently ejected he relaxed into his final song.

Given a choice of swapping tonight's performance with the overblown fatuous lite-rock of a Coldplay gig in some soulless stadium I'm certain there wouldn't be too much of a queue for tickets from tonight's audience members. As the final chords of Wild Horses rang through the air he slowly rose to his feet, again thanking the audience, before walking of to yet more rapturous and well deserved applause.

I came here tonight not really knowing what to expect but left with my musical appetite (more voracious than most, believe me) fully sated and then some. We saw the Yin and Yang, the light and dark, the good and purportedly bad sides to Ray LaMontagne and left wanting more of the same.

Like Nick Drake before him he certainly appears to have been born with a layer or two of skin fewer than most but if he is prepared to brave the stage to put across his art then who are we to deny him our company? When I first saw the band set up sans string section my companion and I expressed a little disappointment but having witnessed what we did, I feel safe in saying that this will sit safely among the best musical experiences of my gig going life. Perhaps the addition of a string section would have propelled the proceedings to musical heaven proportions. Perhaps not. I look forward to finding out in future.

Review by Gordon Swift

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