Ray LaMontagne may have been surprised to see — and hear — the many fans that came out to see him on his first foray into Little Rock, where he delivered a fine show Saturday night at Robinson Center Music Hall. But if he was surprised, no one could tell, as the inscrutable singer-songwriter from New Hampshire was especially calm and collected.
Accompanied only by John Stirratt of Wilco (and its predecessor, Uncle Tupelo) on electric bass and vocal harmonies, LaMontagne played acoustic guitar, as the two musicians stood on a relatively simple set that had as its background what appeared to be a painting of clouds.
He opened an 18-song set with “No Other Way,” and included “Beg Steal or Borrow,” “Lavender,” “Burn,” “Old Before Your Time,” “Such a Simple Thing” and “In My Own Way,” during which he upped the ante with some stunning harmonica, which continued on “New York City’s Killing Me” and later, on “Like Rock & Roll and Radio.”
His harmonica interludes were as transcendent as anything from Neil Young or Willie Nelson’s harmonica wizard, Mickey Raphael, and as the show continued on with “Ojai,” “Empty” and “It’s Always Been You,” LaMontagne continued to somehow create and refine a sort of whispery scream.
LaMontagne’s sole cover selection was “Blue Canadian Rockies,” which he explained was a song he heard on one of the albums he had most been influenced by, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The intensity ramped up with “To the Sea” and after the provocative “Like Rock & Roll and Radio,” LaMontagne brought forth his best-known song, “Trouble,” as the fans roared their approval.
For an encore, LaMontagne sang “Let’s Make It Last,” on which Stirratt delivered some fine bass work. Then came another fan favorite, “Jolene,” and the show closed with the oddly prophetic “Wouldn’t It Make a Lovely Photograph,” which contained the line “never gonna hear this song on the radio.” And that’s sad, but true.
It was somehow heartening to see an almost packed house for a performer who could not have gotten much local radio attention, but then in today’s world, that’s no longer required. LaMontagne is a rare treat, especially in these parts.
Opening act The Secret Sisters made no secret of the fact that “we do not play happy songs,” but at least they played interesting songs, including the ones they termed “murder ballads.” Laura and Lydia Rogers, from Muscle Shoals, Ala., already had a local fan base, thanks to their occasional gigs at the White Water Tavern, which they noted for those who might not have known. Lydia played guitar and sang, while Laura sang and did most of the talking, which was entertaining and revealing.
They opened their seven-song set with “Tennessee River Runs Low,” crowded up to one microphone to do a nifty cover of Graham Nash’s “Wasted on the Way,” sang of bad relationship troubles in “Bad Habit” and closed with the title cut of their latest album, “You Don’t Own Me Anymore” and even folded into it some of the Lesley Gore 1960s classic with a similar name and topic, “You Don’t Own Me.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the title of a song from Ray LaMontagne's performance. "Such a Simple Thing" is the name of the song.