That Time Ray LaMontagne Fixed My Screwed Up Day
Sunday, Oct. 13 in Northern California, and it's hot. It seems like it's always hot now, like that old 'Twilight Zone' episode where the residents of an apartment building are waiting to crash into the Sun. I worry way too much about the encroaching heat. I worry too much about everything.
I'm on my way to Davis, Calif. to shoot the Ray LaMontagne show at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, a purpose-built concert hall just a few hundred feet from where UC Davis's notorious pepper spraying campus cop incident happened a couple years ago. Davis is a liberal town -- the image of peaceful protesters being gassed for no good reason still bothers me.
At least I hope I'll be shooting LaMontagne. Sometimes in this business one doesn't know until show time whether press credentials have been granted, and this is one of those days. I decide to roll the dice, show up, and see what happens.
Getting there is a challenge. Freeway traffic is backed up for miles, a sea of cars trying to make their way from the Sierra Nevada Mountains back to their garages in the San Francisco Bay area. Davis, a little dot of a college town, rests roughly between weekend mountain fun and home sweet home for thousands of drivers.
But that's OK. I cue up the 'Fire/Fury Records Story' box set and settle in. What's normally a 20-minute drive lasts an hour. I'm a little stuck-in-traffic amped when I roll into town, but not too bad.
I join a friend for lunch while I wait for confirmation from my contact. Still no word by the time the check comes, so I roam around downtown Davis, hit the record stores and the coffee shops. A couple of hours before showtime I finally get the "You're all set" email.
I look armed for some kind of camera battle.
And so I head over to the Mondavi Center, park and get my gear ready. This is a scene that has evolved from sticking a notebook in my back pocket to harnessing up two cameras, choosing lenses, making sure I have a couple of working pens and a notebook, grabbing business cards and a lanyard -- on and on. When I leave my car I look armed for some kind of camera battle, fisheye lenses at 50 paces.
"Can I help you, sir?"
"I need to pick up my press pass," I tell the will call lady, ten pounds of gear hanging from me like seaweed.
"Did you buy your tickets here or through an online vendor?"
"No tickets, press pass."
"You need to buy a ticket? Next window."
"No, I need my press pass." I wave my cameras in the air. "Press. Journalist. Me cover show."
We go around and around, but the gist is there's no pass waiting for me. No big deal, happens all the time. I try to get in touch with my contact, no response. I sit. I wait.
The longer I wait the more irritated I get. I want to leave, but I can't. I have a job to do. Somehow I have to get inside this joint.
The doors finally open. I blow past the ushers and ask for the house manager. Fifteen minutes later I have my credentials and my instructions: I can only shoot from house right. I have to stay 15 rows back.
I get that. For a show as intimate as Ray LaMontagne I'd feel like an intruder anyway, pacing back and forth in front of the stage. But on the other hand my assignment is to get some shots, and being pinned to one spot doesn't allow for much variety.
One of my cameras is a bad choice at this distance, the lens worthless from so far away. I grow more and more anxious. What if I fail? What if I can't get any good shots? I want to leave even more now, just scrap the whole thing, make up some story for my editor. Credentials never came through ... had a cold ... was attacked by a cobra ...
I use the first few songs of the opening act to get my camera settings all dialed in, and then I go to the lobby for a cocktail. More people stand in the lobby than sit in the theater. All that money for tickets, and they blow off the opening act. I don't get it. They talk loud and laugh loud and wear stupid clothes and waste their tickets drinking in a lobby rather than enjoying the music.
The lights are too bright, the volume too loud, and I want to go home. I know what's going on. My personal blend of social anxiety and panic disorder has kicked in. All of the trivial little inconveniences of my day have added up, then been multiplied by the number of people crowding around me. I'm in full-blown flight mode.
I grab my cocktail and find the most remote spot in the lobby. It's so remote that it isn't even on security's rounds. I'm so hidden in the corner of the lobby that my nearest companions are Waldo and Kim Jong-un.
Glenn Campbell's 'Wichita Lineman' pops into my ear buds -- 36,000 songs in my pocket and the iPod gods serve me the tale of a lonely electrician stuck atop a pole in remote Kansas. It's the perfect medicine. I set the magic rectangle in my pocket to "repeat" and obsess over that poor lonely soul.
I wonder what Ray LaMontagne thinks of 'Wichita Lineman.' We're close to the same age, so I know he's familiar with the song. Maybe he hates it. Maybe he loves it. I don't know, but in my hidden corner I convince myself that LaMontagne wishes he wrote it.
This is going to be our night, Ray, just the Wichita lineman and me hiding in our corner, hoping someone can hear us singing through the wire. I want to go home even more, but show time approaches.
I go back into the auditorium. There's no venue in the Sacramento area that sounds better than the Mondavi Center because it was designed with music in mind. It's an 1,800 seat hardwood speaker cabinet. I pace in my little house right corner. Please, let's just get this over with.
Montagne and his band amble onto the stage to polite applause. It's that kind of place: People stay seated and clap nicely and talk about whatever folks like that talk about -- let's call it, Grey Poupon. They have polite conversations about Grey Poupon while they wait for the evening's guest to entertain them.
The band launches into 'Lavender,' the opening cut from 'Supernova,' LaMontagne's latest album. Behind them is projected a swirl of colors reminiscent of the oil and water projections at a Kesey acid test circa 1966. Everything swirls: the backdrop, the music, LaMontagne's unique voice, my insides.
It all falls away, the anxiety, the panic, the crowd, the job, the strong urge to flee. I'm inside the music, the moment, a wave of calm reverberating off of the perfectly designed walls.
The band can't be any tighter, LaMontagne's vocals any more on point.
They take it up a notch with 'She's the One.' It's been years since I heard a band sound this good live. Everything is right: The band can't be any tighter, LaMontagne's vocals any more on point. 'For the Summer's' hints of Neil Young wrap up a three song set opener that's about as close to perfect as a performing band can hope for.
It's hard to call it a 'show.' LaMontagne keeps the patter to a minimum, an occasional "How ya doin'" or "Thanks for coming out." There's no fire breathing or spinning drum kits, just the music, and man, is it good. I get my shots and then I sit and listen.
I guess the morals of this story are these:
- No matter how lunatic I can be, music makes it better. It's better medicine than anything available by prescription ...
- 'Wichita Lineman' in a pair of ear buds is no match for Ray LaMontagne in a venue as exquisite as UC Davis's Mondavi Center ...
- ... or any venue for that matter.
Music is best experienced live, not through tiny speakers or cruddy headphones. Only when we stand in the middle of it and let the air around us vibrate does music's amazing power truly manifest itself.
I prescribe a healthy dose of Ray LaMontagne for whatever ails you, to be administered aurally at a theater near you.
Ray LaMontagne -- Set List, Oct. 12, 2014
'She's the One'
'For the Summer'
'Pick Up a Gun'
'Trouble/Stand by Me Medley'
'God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise'