Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
No less an authority than Lucinda Williams has given her seal of approval to the power of Ray LaMontagne's voice. The gifted Maine singer-songwriter made an appearance during her set Wednesday night at the Orpheum Theatre and reportedly bowled over the crowd as well as his duet partner. She compared him favorably to Otis Redding.
Thursday night in the first of two shows at the Opera House, LaMontagne maintained that spell, holding a hooting and hollering audience enthrall to his thoughtful ruminations. With a firm grip on sultry Southern soul traditions, the loose-limbed grooviness of roots rock, and the poetic possibilities of confessional songwriting, LaMontagne offered a mesmerizing 90 minutes.
With the help of a sublime and intuitive four-piece band - which included his invaluable producer Ethan Johns on drums - LaMontagne offered a generous preview of his superb new album "Gossip in the Grain," out next Tuesday.
LaMontagne's songs, which have grown in caliber exponentially with each release, offer evocative images that neatly suit the range of moods his smoke-and-sandpaper voice offers.
The encroaching dark of "Winter Birds" was a whisper of both melancholy and contentment. "Let It Be Me" metaphorically extended a strong set of shoulders to a friend in need with a desperate pleading. And the devil himself seemed to reside somewhere in LaMontagne's raggedy barking and Johns's stomping backbeat on "Henry Nearly Killed Me (It's a Shame)," which also benefited from fiery bursts of harmonica and tremulous mellotron flourishes.
Guitarist Eric Heywood was particularly fine throughout the night offering economical solos and sweet sultry flourishes to a variety of songs that ranged from the Band-like romp "Hey Me, Hey Mama" and mournful pedal steel to "A Falling Through," which also featured opener Leona Naess reprising her backing vocals.
LaMontagne may be a brooder but he also showed off a wryly comic side offering a loving ode to White Stripes drummer Meg White. The tune, a delightful mash-up of Stripes-ian blues minimalism and swoony background vocals, takes White's name for the title and offers up sweet entreaties to view sunsets and go bicycle riding with LaMontagne.
There seemed to be no complaint with the emphasis on new material but LaMontagne didn't ignore his back catalog, either. A surging "You Can Bring Me Flowers" was a noir-ish highlight and breakthrough hit "Trouble" got the crowd into the act as did an encore of the sinuous "Three More Days."
The bottom line? Lucinda Williams knows her stuff.