David Gray, Ray LaMontagne & Tift Merritt at Greek Theatre, Los Angeles
September 7, 2010
By Michael Berick
Fall was in air for this evening and it seemed appropriate for this autumnal sounds delivered by this triumvirate of talented singer-songwriters.
Opening the show was Tift Merritt, who hit the stage sharply at 7 p.m. while most of the audience was still lounging at the Greek’s plaza, looking for parking or still in traffic. Her set was short (only around 20 minutes) and pleasant, but didn’t really showcase her talents fully. She, more or less, played solo (a bassist sometimes played with her), accompanying herself on the guitar or piano. The stripped down set-up didn’t do her justice, and her voice also got lost some in the largely empty amphitheatre.
As a longtime Merritt fan, I was a little disappointed; however, it was more due to the circumstances than the performance. It was nothing like her powerful show I saw her give at L.A.’s Troubadour a few years back in support of Tambourine. But this show did get her introduced to a wider audience who might seek out her fine, sophisticated new album, See You On The Moon.
Ray LaMontagne came out next, and he had an interesting set-up with his band basically on one side and him on the other. The ever-modest LaMontagne seemed to enjoy hanging in the stage shadows, coming out just to sing. He was a man of few words, although the one time he did talk was a funny reaction to the proverbial “Free Bird” request.
What he concentrated on was his singing. The raspy-voiced romantic easily won over the receptive crowd with his soulful, folk-rocky tunes, which mixed old numbers with new ones from his recently released, God Willin & The Creek Don’t Rise. Old favorites like “Trouble,” on which his inspiration felt drawn from Otis Redding and Richie Havens, provoked a big reaction from the audience.
His newer material, however, worked very well live. This is due in no small part for the talented folks in his band, The Pariah Dogs, which features such session stalwarts as guitarist/pedal steel player Eric Haywood, drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Jennifer Condos. They worked up a fine funkiness to “Repo Man,” which recalled the Americana jamminess of LaMontagne’s idol Stephen Stills. They really got things cooking near the end of his 65 minute set with a rousing rendition of “Like Rock & Roll And Radio” that he followed with his encore, “You Are The Best Thing.”
David Gray served as this evening’s headliner, although it seems like it could have been a coin flip between LaMontagne and him over the honors. Gray is definitely more animated performer than LaMontagne. Backed by a rock combo (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards), he started his set off quite energetically; however, the songs seemed to fall just short of being truly memorable. The hooks and melodies just weren’t quite strong enough to win you over. Granted I am not such a Gray fan that I knew his new songs well but if they were really strong tunes that would have succeeded more with me.
In fact, it was his older tunes, “Flame Turns Blue,” “Sail Away” and his breakthrough hit “Babylon” seemed to shine the brightest for him. This set overall felt tasteful but tame folk-rock. It was a nice touch when he did an enthusiastic version of the second-tier Beatles tune “Dig A Pony” during his encore, but it’s telling that the tune was the most fun song of the night.
At the show’s end, I felt each performer could have benefited from a slightly grander sound. Maybe it was the outdoor setting and its proximity to the even larger Hollywood Bowl, but I thought it might have nice for Gray to have a string section to fill out his elegant tunes, if LaMontagne had horns to punctuate his songs’ soulfulness and if Merritt simply had a band behind her to bolster his sound.
That said, you have to take what the musicians give you – not what you wish they had done – and LaMontagne, Gray and Merritt all showed themselves to be accomplished singer-songwriters even if the latter two in particularly weren’t as compelling as they could have been.