Ray LaMontagne writes good old-fashioned soul music — Van Morrison soul — sings with a raw, bluesy tone, and attracts more women than men to his music, as he did Friday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. With Brandi Carlisle preceding him, the night raised pop music to its classic, respectful stature of yesteryear.
LaMontagne might have met this same level of success at any time during the last 40 years. His cool beard, raspy voice, denim look and coy silence on stage could work at any point on the pop-culture time line. It’s good we get him now, because his old-timey earthy approach helps sustain American-roots music.
The show started with LaMontagne alone on stage singing “Like Rock and Roll and Radio,” from his latest release “God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise,” from where he drew most of the songs.
He brought on the Secret Sisters, who opened his show, to sing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” Heavy on the country twang here, with a steel guitar solo, LaMontagne was clearly taking care of his country fans. He sang a great whispery “Hold You In My Arms” from his “Trouble” album.
While you could see the face of his band members, he stayed mostly in the dark. He said very little, except he told us a few times that he was having trouble breathing — an odd thing to say, and then repeat, to an excitable ticket-paying audience.
During “Repo Man,” things grew aggressive, attacking the way Creedence Clearwater Revival treats their songs. It offered some dynamics to the show, but LaMontagne and band — called Pariah Dogs — are best when letting the song guide them down the river, and not the other way around.
“Beg Steal or Borrow” and “Shelter” was LaMontagne at his best. When he plays into his core strength — that certain common spot within his best songs — he is great. He hit that on “Are We Really Through.”
“New York City Is Killing Me” struck a chord with the rural folk.
The upper tier of the pavilion was mostly empty, as was the lawn, which made for an extra comfortable evening. You can really appreciate the beauty of SPAC when it’s not full. And it seemed appropriate for the type of show Friday night.
Other good ones he played were “Devils in the Jukebox,” a swampy honky-tonk,
“I didn’t show up for the opening act until I became one, so thank you for coming,” Carlisle told the audience after her first song. She was more than an opening act, for many sang her songs with her, such as “Story,” probably her most familiar.
Her first song was her best. “Again Today” was as good as live pop should be. She started with great emotion, drew us in, then built with her band a fantastic orchestral crescendo that didn’t oversell. For those who didn’t know her, they must have sat up for the rest of the set. She later sang a moving version of Patsy Cline’s cover “Crazy.”
Her song “Dreams,” stripped away, sounded very much like a classic American pop standard, as most of hers did. With the modern accouterments — guitar, drums, etc. — it appeared up to date. But the real lesson is that classic pop can be timeless over the decades, and Carlisle teaches us this, on purpose or not.
The two of them together gave us great song writing and clean, bare-bone deliveries.