Never one for a grandiose entrance, Ray LaMontagne quietly wanders onto the Manchester Apollo stage before a hushed crowd, his face half-concealed under a brimmed hat. With only his bass player/backing singer for accompaniment on this Just Passing Through tour, the mood is distinctly intimate as he opens with a stripped back version of No Other Way, a hazy serenade with echoes of Laurel Canyon.
Most of the first 30 minutes is taken from the Supernova and Ouroboros albums – records which favoured dreamy psychedelia over the folky soul of their predecessors – and consequently it feels like the performance takes a while to move out of first gear. He hits his stride about half-way in, the soaring vocal of new track Such A Simple Thing managing to sound tender and damaged at the same time.
At best, LaMontagne’s material and delivery is genuinely mesmerising – the pained howl of Burn still sounds like a man almost out of his mind with jealousy and heartbreak, while the dark dialogue of Empty evokes a quietly troubled psyche. The famously reticent singer-songwriter seems more relaxed in front of an audience than previous years, however, even trying on a little self-deprecating humour when the mention of his new record is initially met with a muted response: “One guy at the back is real happy about that.”
A candid revelation of a breakdown after the recording of God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise in 2010 feels a little like collective therapy and serves as an introduction to the positively upbeat To The Sea, suggesting happier times ahead. Set closer Trouble – one of only very few forays into his much-loved debut album – reveals the unbridled power behind those often whispered vocals, a bold and soulful roar only occasionally let loose. He’s not being allowed away so quickly, of course. Jolene – starkly beautiful and a hypnotic highlight of the evening – All The Wild Horses and Wouldn’t It Make a Lovely Photograph ensure that tonight’s crowd gets its fix until the next time he passes through this way.