Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs

“There’s something magical that happens when these musicians play together,” says Ray LaMontagne. “I’ve been wanting to capture what we’ve been doing live for a while. The chemistry is really special.”

The billing on LaMontagne’s fourth album, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, reveals instantly that something new is happening with this project. The record is credited to “Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs”—the first time that the singer/songwriter has defined himself within a band setting, rather than as a solo artist. In addition, it marks the first time that LaMontagne has taken on the role of producer. And as soon as the music starts, with the Joe Cocker-style soul power of the opening “Repo Man,” it’s apparent that one of the world’s most acclaimed artists has moved into some fresh territory.

Not that he was necessarily in need of a new direction. The album is the follow-up to 2008’s Gossip in the Grain, which debuted in the Top Five on the Billboard charts; garnered two 2010 Grammy nominations; earned LaMontagne a coveted slot performing on Saturday Night Live; and continued the expansion of a highly-respected career that began with his first album, Trouble, in 2004.

The line-up of the Pariah Dogs, and their alliance with LaMontagne, is already well-proven and familiar. These musicians—Eric Heywood and Greg Leisz on guitars, Jennifer Condos on bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums—have been working as the singer’s touring band for the last few years, and developing into a tight-knit team. Though he had thought about trying to get all of these busy session players together in the studio before, only now did time and circumstance align and make it possible.

For one thing, there was a new work set-up that LaMontagne was excited about. “I just bought this old estate in western Massachusetts that belonged to the first US ambassador to Russia,” he says. “There’s this beautiful, enormous room in the barn, and I felt like it would make a great recording space.”

“It was an unknown space and an unknown situation, but it all worked,” says drummer Bellerose. “It was one of the easiest sessions I’ve ever done—the songs just played themselves. We were scheduled to record for two weeks, but we were done tracking in five or six days.”

The last song on God Willin’, “The Devil’s in the Jukebox,” was the first thing that the group recorded. Bellerose notes that this simple, bluesy track set a tone for the sessions. “It was kind of a springboard,” he says. “It loosened everybody up, gave us a chance to breathe.”

“That’s one of those songs I tend to write that is so damn linear, it’s up to us to make it interesting,” says LaMontagne with a laugh. “If you take it apart, there’s not a lot happening. But the way these guys approach songs is always surprising. Where they take the melody, the interplay between the rhythm section—who knows what they’re going to come up with?”

Guitarist Heyward says that the singer “made a decision beforehand to trust the band, and he really stuck to that.” He points to the album’s title track as an example of the way these sessions allowed each song to find its own path. Heyward and Leisz both play pedal steel, and they looked to LaMontagne to determine the arrangements and instrumentation.

“On that one, he said, ‘How about two pedal steels?,” Heyward recalls. “And then Jay started doing this bombastic, artillery-style drum thing. The song reads as a letter, with no chorus or bridge, so the whole thing was the most surprising track for me, and definitely one of my favorites. And Ray’s vocal performance is amazing.”

Ray LaMontagne has one of the remarkable stories in music’s past decade. Since leaving his job in a Maine shoe factory to pursue his calling as a musician, he has released three studio albums and two live EPs, won awards and topped critics’ polls internationally, and established himself as one of the most distinctive talents of his generation. His songs have been featured in numerous films and television shows, including multiple performances of his compositions on American Idol.

Yet he maintains that, until God Willin’, all of these accomplishments have come despite his own struggles in the recording studio. “The process has always been laborious, it’s been difficult for me to get any momentum,” he says. “I always felt like I was swimming upstream.”

But this time, things were different. “Ray was really in his comfort zone,” says Bellerose. “He was home with family, he’s really relaxed around this band—there was never a moment that felt uncomfortable. I think he’s just having a lot more fun communicating with more people, and getting out of being on his own as a singer/songwriter.”

LaMontagne claims that he didn’t specifically set out to write songs for this group of musicians, though he certainly had its sound in his mind. Regardless of the outcome, he says that his process didn’t—and can’t ever—change.

“For me, songs just have to happen, they have to come out of nowhere,” he says. “Otherwise it sounds like you’re trying to write a song, and I can spot that a mile away—and I think listeners can, too.

“I won’t ever sit down and write unless something is knocking at the door. I can go months without writing a song—and that’s when it gets scary, when you feel like you’re never going to write another song because they’re just not coming around.”

LaMontagne’s steady output, however, indicates that there’s little cause for concern. And for God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, in addition to his own extraordinary writing, these ten songs had the benefit of contributions from an exceptional bunch of musicians, collaborating under ideal conditions. Even the notoriously self-critical LaMontagne can’t hide his delight at the results.

“A song like ‘New York City’s Killing Me,’ is so melodramatic, it could just be rote or trite,” he says. “But they started playing it and on the second or third take, I found myself thinking that something really beautiful was happening.

“These guys are all so good, and I trust their instincts so much, I just wanted to write songs that I felt would excite them,” concludes LaMontagne “There was a certain amount of pressure, because they’re so much more accomplished than I am as a musician. But I knew that if I could pull together a batch of songs I was happy with, there was really no risk involved.”

Around the time she began getting serious about making music, Brandi Carlile would travel to Seattle's Benaroya Hall for concerts, including solo performances by Dave Matthews and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. "I watched them," she recalls, "and I wondered what it would be like to stand on that beautiful stage."

Now she knows. The release of Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony marks the realization of two dreams for the acclaimed singer/songwriter: "We got to work with a world class symphony and record in this legendary venue in our hometown. The hall has such great acoustics, you can hear someone zip up their coat."

The stunning set features Carlile and her band running through a beautifully vibrant collection of her best-loved originals, including "Dreams" and "The Story," as well as a number of cover songs she has come to make her own. In addition to a 30-piece orchestra, she's joined by her stellar, longtime band featuring guitarist Tim Hanseroth and bassist Phil Hanseroth (collectively known as "The Twins"), cellist Josh Neumann and drummer Allison Miller.

"A live album is something we always wanted to do," says Carlile, winner of Seattle's City of Music Breakthrough Award in 2010. "We wanted three studio albums and then a live record since we, above all things, consider ourselves a live act. Performing is the cornerstone of our career."

As Carlile's fans well know, her concerts are near legendary in their perfect communion between performer and audience. Whether she is rocking out with her full band or standing quietly, tantalizingly close to the edge of the stage singing a capella, Carlile brings a riveting intensity to her shows. "The Symphony is here and they add so much to it," she says of Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony, "but as far as the emotion, it's the same as any other show."

The thirteen selections (including a secret hidden track) for Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony come from Carlile's two sold-out November 2010 performances at the prestigious venue. "Almost the
whole recording is the first night," she confesses. "We played a rock club in between the two shows and with all the Ramones covers we blew out our voices. The second night was fine, but the first night shined with
precision."

The album opens with a cover of Elton John's "Sixty Years On" from his 1970 self-titled album. The song serves as an homage to one of Carlile's musical heroes (much to her delight, John appeared with Carlile on "Caroline" on her 2009 Rick Rubin-produced album, Give Up The Ghost). "I loved Elton John, Madman Across the Water and Tumbleweed Connection. They were such collaborative efforts. The song is a nod to
what first inspired me to start playing with symphonies and being able to conceptualize orchestrated music," Carlile says.

To bring it full circle, Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony features arrangements from John's legendary arranger Paul Buckmaster, including his original arrangement for "Sixty Years On." Sean O'Loughlin, renowned for his work with Chris Isaak and Belle & Sebastian, contributed arrangements as well.

After her first orchestra performance in 2008 (at Benaroya Hall, coincidentally), Carlile, who was named one of Rolling Stone's "10 Artists to Watch in 2005," knew a live album with a full orchestra was a foregone
conclusion. "Before we started working with the symphonies, we'd thought about all different kinds of live albums like [Sarah McLachlan's] Mirrorball, where we'd record the whole tour and take our favorite songs, or a live album that we'd record at a famous venue like Massey Hall. There has to be some kind of cohesiveness. But after our very first symphony experience there was no discussion."

Carlile's memories of the Benaroya shows are as crystalline as her radiant voice. "On 'Dreams,' the crowd was so raucous, there were a few seconds I couldn't even hear our band over the symphony. A bunch
of them were standing up and clapping. Everyone in the room just had a good time."

The record includes Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," a song that remains as sacred and transformative to Carlile today as it did when she first heard Jeff Buckley's version years ago. With the muted strings, Carlile's cover is breathtakingly transcendent. "Usually when I'm performing, I'm interacting with the band and interacting with the audience," she says, "but for some reason, when I sing 'Hallelujah,' I'm kind of witnessing it from another place when it's happening. I can hear what's
going down. The strings on this version are transporting."

While it seems incredible, Carlile was so in the moment, she didn't remember she was being recorded. "When you're standing in front of 3,000 people, you'd be amazed what you forget," she laughs. "Before the show we were asked to adjust the lighting for a few songs to allow for photos for the album packaging and we said, 'No,no,no. The show is all that matters.' The ironic thing is if you believe nothing matters more than the show, that will translate in an unspeakable way on the recording."

Indeed, anyone who's ever attended one of Carlile's shows will recognize the magic captured within. Unlike many albums that claim to be "live" but are full of studio fixes, "Live at Benaroya Hall" is pure, unadulterated Brandi. "We did some really, really minor things in post-production, mostly volume stuff like we'd decide the symphony needs to be louder or we wanted to turn up the violas," Carlile says. "But anyone who was there would tell you this is exactly how it sounded."

Twangy indie folk sweetheart Dawn Landes landed in New York City in 2000 from Louisville, Kentucky. Starting off working as an audio engineer for the likes of Philip Glass, Ryan Adams, and Joseph Arthur, Dawn recently co-founded Saltlands, a studio in Brooklyn where she now produces and records bands. In 2004 Dawn released her first solo record, earning her gigs with Feist, Andrew Bird, and Jose Gonzalez. She has since toured the world with her band The Hounds (Ray Rizzo on drums, Josh Kaufman on guitar) playing alongside contemporaries like Alexi Murdoch, Elvis Perkins and Midlake. Dawn’s music can frequently be heard on TV series, commercials and film soundtracks. Her latest LP Sweet Heart Rodeo was released to wide acclaim in early 2010.
“I guess you could say each song is like its own bull,” the twenty-eight-year-old deadpans, “each ride its own love-story…you know, trying to hang on to a wild thing isn’t always graceful.” Her feminist approach proved problematic when it came to turning up images of feisty cowgirls for the artwork. “There aren’t many female bull riders,” she admits. And with good reason. “I went to a few rodeos as research. They don’t stay on those things very long.”

Though she grew up in Louisville her perfect variations on country and folk music have all been recorded in her adopted hometown of Brooklyn. The culture clash of urban and rural traditions is an intriguing base for Landes’ material and audience. She spent most of 2008 touring with a variety of country/folk and indie-rock stalwarts like The Tindersticks, Midlake, Josh Ritter, Jason Isbell (of the Drive by Truckers), Alexi Murdoch and the Swell Season, to name a few. And though she might recognize kindred spirits in contemporaries like Conor Oberst and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Landes is blessed with a voice as pure and ringing as any folk or country diva.

The voice has always been there, but it’s taken a while to be heard. Her first self-released records, simply called Dawn’s Music and the EP two three four effectively proved her talent, but it was 2008’s acclaimed Fireproof that revealed it to the world. Around that time her splendid bluegrass cover of Peter Bjorn and John’s instant classic “Young Folks,” performed with an elderly group of Texans called The WST Band (“It stands for ‘we sorta tried’”), became a YouTube favorite. “Straight Lines,” one of her best-known songs, sound-tracked in adverts on both sides of the Atlantic. Here it accompanied a cute campaign to encourage urban cycling. There it promoted Axe, the local equivalent of Lynx and the preferred perfume of adolescent males. Its writer was bemused. “The same song was used to promote bicycling in a childlike way and men’s deodorant in a sexual way. What does that mean?” she once pondered. For a while she lived in France, learning to love Gainsbourg, Brassens and Francoise Hardy, and spent her time in Paris at the most unlikely joints. “I found myself in a lot of situations I wouldn’t have been invited to otherwise,” she says, “I played a lot of parties, fashion parties, one in a hotel where there was a bubble bath filled with champagne!” As you can imagine this is a world she doesn’t usually inhabit.

Since her last release, Landes (her surname has two syllables) has finished fitting out her own studio, Saltlands in Brooklyn. “I actually built it! Some friends and I put up the walls and floated the floors,” she declares proudly, christening it with the recording of Sweet Heart Rodeo. Again working with regular collaborator, drummer and all-rounder Ray Rizzo, her recording outfit was completed by guitarist Josh Kaufman and bassist Annie Nero, a couple (of musicians) that she met on the road. A cover of Kaufman’s composition, the charming, gentle “Dance Area” fits perfectly alongside Landes’ own material.

“Sweet Heart Rodeo” is packed with fine tunes, again beautifully sung. The opener “Young Girl” ponders gender stereotyping—competitive boys, jealous girls—over a reductive and distorted keyboard riff. The deceptively cutting “Romeo” berates a certain someone who ruined one of Landes’ birthdays by standing her up. No wonder she borrows a hook from “16 Tons,” Tennessee Ernie Ford’s fifties nugget of resignation. The haunting ‘Money In The Bank’ marries down-home hippie wisdom (‘the night before you die, what are you gonna buy?’) to a glorious chorus bolstered by a wistful French horn. Dawn even drums on an unlikely cover of Margo Guryan’s already unlikely “Love,” a 1968 collision of cool jazz and nascent psychedelia. “She’s amazing, one of these unsung geniuses like Vashti Bunyan was, who made one fabulous record then disappeared,” she says of the woman behind the lost classic “Take A Picture.”

Rizzo’s idiosyncratic harmonica style (“kinda cloudy—the opposite of ethereal”) boosts the quirky “Wandering Eye,” a rare song that combines sex and travel without causing offence, while “Little Miss Holiday” imagines a conversation between Jodie Foster and the teenage hooker that inspired her character in Scorsese’s unhinged “Taxi Driver.” It’s tender rather than bleak. “Brighton” is a tribute to a magical day in that great Southern (English) town, yet it could hardly sound more American, Appalachian even. “I hope I captured it in the song,” she says. By the album’s conclusion, the wobbly wedding march of “All Dressed In White,” you’ll probably be thinking of giving love a try. Even if it does hurt when you fall off.

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Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs with Brandi Carlile, Dawn Landes

Thursday, September 29 · 5:30 PM at Merriweather Post Pavilion