Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 2, 2014
With a fresh album of songs to showcase for the first time in four years, Ray LaMontagne leaned heavily on the new stuff Friday night at the Long Center, playing nine of the 10 tracks on "Supernova" to an adoring sold-out crowd.
That was all well and good, given that "Supernova" is a marvelous record that has taken LaMontagne’s music in some intriguing new directions. It’s heavy on psychedelic accents, which played well into a fantastic complementary light show that played behind LaMontagne and his four-piece band. A big screen was lit up with swirling color patterns that came to a focal point in a smaller circular screen at the center that loomed above the musicians like an ever-changing full moon.
LaMontagne smartly opened with "Lavender," the lead track from the new record that has been getting significant airplay locally on KUTX. Heavily reminiscent of late-’60s airy mysticism like the Beatles’ "Blue Jay Way," it set the tone for an evening of immersion in hypnotic sights and sounds.
If psychedelia was a common thread throughout, it’s worth noting that both the show and the "Supernova" album actually display a significant stylistic versatility within the bounds of that framework. Tunes such as the title track and "Ojai" bounced along with a sunny pop feel that brought to mind classic mid-’70s AM-radio hits, while "She’s the One" tapped into a harder-edged and heavily rhythmic bluesy vibe, and "Airwaves" grooved to a calypso-esque island beat.
Seven of the set’s first nine songs were from "Supernova," the lone exceptions being the gorgeous and seasonally appropriate "For the Summer" and the bitter, harsher "Repo Man" (both from 2010’s "God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise"). Then came a stripped-down break with no light show and just LaMontagne on acoustic guitar with bassist Zachariah Hickman playing an upright. All three songs in this min-set came from LaMontagne’s 2004 debut "Trouble," including the breakthrough title cut. LaMontagne’s signature high yet raspy voice got the spotlight here, though he ultimately sounded best with fuller backing.
The rest of his excellent band returned for three songs to close the main set plus a three-song encore. Hickman, long a presence in Josh Ritter’s band prior to joining LaMontagne, anchored stage right with guitarist/keyboardist Dave Depper. Opposite them were siblings Barbara and Ethan Gruska on drums and guitar/keys, respectively, both of whom also led the evening’s opening act, Los Angeles indie pop quartet the Belle Brigade.
At the start of the encore, LaMontagne went out of his way to praise the Belle Brigade effusively, saying that when he first heard their 2011 song "Losers" (the second song in their set Friday), he realized, "I’ve got to up my game, these young guys are going to kill me!"
He may have a point: With the crowd slowly drifting in through their 45-minute opening set, the Belle Brigade delivered a terrific 10-song performance that showcased the dual vocals of the Gruska siblings. Intriguingly recalling elements of both early ’80s new wave and late ’80s underground alt-rock, they stood out as a band worthy of far more than opening-act status on instantly memorable tunes from their new album such as "How I See It" and "When Everything Was What It Was."