To say the narrow, bare-bones stage was sparsely furnished would be an understatement. A pair of acoustic guitars, a small table flanked by a couple of microphones, and a bank of monitors, all of it cast in autumn amber light, was pretty much it. But it was all singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne needed to transfix, and then transcend, the room Friday during the first of two sold-out shows at the Berklee Performance Center. He had brought his songs, and his voice, after all.
Even more than the stories of heartache and redemption that mark ''Trouble," LaMontagne's major label debut, it was that arresting voice -- an idiosyncratic, astonishing force of nature that blew well beyond easy categories of blues or folk or pop; a cosmic gift, really -- that gave the New Hampshire native's performance its stormy soul and stirring emotional resonance.
Every tangled tree has its roots, and in that alternately freighted and feather-light delivery lie ancestral echoes, both in texture and temperament, of Richie Havens, Cat Stevens, and the Band's Richard Manuel. Also lurking around the edges of LaMontagne's sandpapery tenor was a dash of Stephen Stills, the singer he heard on the radio the morning he decided not to report for his workaday job at a Maine shoe factory and, instead, try his hand at songwriting. As a result of these influences, even broadly brushed, fairly pedestrian love song lyrics penned for tunes such as ''Shelter" and ''Forever My Friend" were imbued with a kind of yearning and gravitas, a triumph of extraordinary style over middling substance.
The concert included 17 songs and lasted 90 minutes, but these were mostly arbitrary numbers. Within selections including the strikingly solemn opener ''Burn" or the album's bracing first single and title song, both material and time seemed to stretch, stand still, and twist like taffy along with LaMontagne's gospel-dosed phrasing into anguish or joy. A pair of country-tinged new numbers, revved up as Saturday-night honky-tonk, managed to do both.
LaMontagne occasionally reached for a harmonica, and the melodies mostly rode atop a handful of pretty yet unfussy guitar chords and ruminations on where to take them. ''Jolene" was an intensely lovely exposition of despair melting into hope, however fragile, and the hymn-like encore reading of ''All the Wild Horses" -- more meditation than song -- was starkly poignant, a devastating dagger of sorrow that cut mercilessly to the quick.
Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile opened the show with a pleasant set of earnest folk-pop that showcased her strong and dexterous, if considerably less distinctive, voice. The young troubadour slipped easily from gutty wail to grainy falsetto on material that stood firmly in the middle of the road, splitting the difference between Melissa Etheridge leather and Allison Moorer lace. To her credit, Carlile ably took on Leonard Cohen's ''Hallelujah," putting both her vocal chops and good taste on display.