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The strange sex appeal of Ray LaMontagne

BRITT’S BESTS AND BUSTS
An opinionated take on the week in music, Oct. 3-9

Ray LaMontagne
Ray LaMontagne

Gig of the week

Ray LaMontagne
(State Theatre, Saturday, Oct. 4, 8 p.m., $32.50)

The soulful balladry of Ray LaMontagne charms with the uplift of the dogged underdog. You instinctively root for the guy as you would a proud, fit septuagenarian climbing a long flight of stairs.

LaMontagne is the polar opposite of slick. (For proof, check this completely un-ironic cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”) His brooding, dusky vocals have been compared to Van Morrison and even Otis Redding — I’d throw in Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall, and Martin Sexton without the leaps into a higher register — but he possesses a charismatic vulnerability that’s his alone. Now 35, he began performing less than a decade ago — he quit working 65-hour weeks at a shoe factory in rural Maine, where he still lives, when he took the folksinger plunge, doing part-time carpentry to make ends meet.

“Trouble,” his 2004 record debut, is bejeweled with songs that emphasize his wounded persistence in the face of unrequited or short-circuited love, setting the template for his appeal. With his spindly frame, full beard and large doe eyes complementing his rural biography, homespun demeanor and gorgeous vocals, LaMontagne became an unlikely sex symbol of sorts, described by writer Allison Stewart in the latest issue of “No Depression” as “a pop star complete with a Top-40 album, gigs at Radio City Music Hall, and a female fan base prone to panty-throwing.”

While I didn’t see any underwear flung at a sell-out show at the Fine Line for LaMontagne a couple years back, the throng was predominantly female, emitting shut-eyed sighs and lip-synching the lyrics in rapturous attention to the headliner.

LaMontagne will likely feature songs from his upcoming third CD, “Gossip In The Grain” (due out Oct. 14), at the more capacious State Theatre on Saturday. Like his second record, “Till the Sun Turns Black,” it unsuccessfully attempts to branch out from his signature ballads, with the horn-driven “You Are the Best Thing” and the old-timey “Hey Me, Hey Mama,” which pale beside the brooding “Let It Be Me,” or the Dylanesque “Sarah.” But you can also expect now-classic songs like “Shelter” (covered by Kelly Clarkson, although LaMontagne proves here that he’s got the definitive take), “Trouble,” and “Forever My Friend.” The fine singer-songwriter Leona Naess, who guests on two tracks of “Gossip,” will open the concert.

Mingus lives NOW

NOWnet
(Minnesota Opera Center, Thursday, Oct. 7, 8 p.m., $15, $12 for students)

As the former co-proprietor of the St. Paul club Brilliant Corners and the artistic director of the nonprofit, community-focused Jazz Is NOW! Jeremy Walker is a precious resource in the local jazz community. But Walker may one day be best remembered for founding the NOWnet, which culls six of the best players on the local scene for an ensemble that, as Walker puts it, is “built in the tradition of the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop and the old Midwest territory bands.”

The Mingus comparison is especially apt with the addition of Anthony Cox — arguably the best jazz musician in the Twin Cities — who took up the bass as a teenager after seeing Mingus in concert and has more than a little bit of Mingus’s bear-like heft and agility on the instrument. Walker’s compositions likewise nod toward Mingus with their seemingly whimsical yet exacting arrangements (“We Are”) and sophisticated horn voicings (“The Pumpkins’ Reunion”). The killer rhythm section includes drummer Kevin Washington and converted saxophonist Walker on piano. Trumpeter Kelly Rossum, saxophonist Chris Thompson and flautist/saxophonist Scott Fultz round out the core sextet.

Phair warning

Liz Phair
(First Avenue, Saturday, Oct. 4, 7 p.m., $25)

To commemorate the 15th anniversary of her stunning, highly-influential first record, “Exile in Guyville,” Phair is performing the entire 18-song, 90-minute opus, straight-through, on tour. What made “Guyville” so powerful was its gawky-awkward naughty-innocence, a coming-of-age attitude that simply can’t be faked. Phair wasn’t an artiste like Patti Smith or a chord-cruncher like Joan Jett or a poet like Joni Mitchell; she was a self-conscious, wannabe hipster dreaming up songs like “Guyville.” It’s a gender-based sexual manifesto delivered with a wavering but persistent bravado in an off-key voice and lo-fi acoustics, a DIY internal dialogue on the virgin/whore dynamic.

Phair has never made another record remotely as arresting. She quickly became too experienced in the ways of the gender wars and the record biz to re-create that come-hither persona she once exuded so naturally (provocative photos in the “lad mags” further muddy the waters), and she lacks enough pure talent to sell out commercially. Hence, this anniversary concert tour. The fact that Phair has generally been a shy performer with a mediocre voice will be less damaging on this indelible material, provided she can get inside it emotionally. If you don’t already know and love “Guyville,” this isn’t going to open your eyes to the magic of Phair. For “Guyville” junkies, however, this is a rare event to be savored and cherished.

A perfectly odd couple

Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby
(7th Street Entry, Friday, Oct. 3, 8 p.m., $10)

Wreckless Eric was the clown prince of Stiff Records back in the 1970s, the comic relief beside the likes of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Ian Drury. But his free-wheeling personality tended to obscure his incisive, heartfelt songwriting, most notably “Whole Wide World,” which Will Ferrell covered so memorably during the best scene of the movie “Stranger than Fiction.” Amy Rigby has carved out a modest but consistently endearing career portraying baby boomers who (probably much like herself) never stopped questing after the enrichments of pop culture while juggling the demands and disappointments of domesticity.

Rigby bills herself as “pop’s sweetest cynic,” a moniker that could apply equally to Eric, who battled back from a nervous breakdown to compile a modestly endearing song catalog of his own. The two met a couple years ago when Eric joined Rigby onstage during her cover of “Whole Wide World.” (Here’s a later version of their duet on the same tune.)

They married in April and put out a record together last month. Now they’ve embarked on a tour that mixes a generous sample of their individual material in with their new collaborations. An intimate venue like the Entry is the perfect place to catch them.

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