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Live review: Ray LaMontagne, Jenny Lewis and Blitzen Trapper at the Hollywood Bowl

July 13, 2009 |  1:56 pm

Jenny300 During his headlining set at KCRW's World Festival at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night, Maine-based singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne used his yearning, raspy voice and barely there folk strumming to induce maximum snuggling among the assembled couples.

But just as the wine and warm night air made all seem tender and amorous, LaMontagne would drop a lyric like this from "Winter Birds": "The kettle sings its tortured songs / A many petaled kiss I place upon her brow / Oh my lady, lady I am loving you now."

The pairing of LaMontagne and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra with Jenny Lewis -- the saucy siren whose 2008 album, "Acid Tongue," was one of the year's most barbed records -- only affirmed how he's something of an R. Kelly for bearded indie-folkers.

LaMontagne's not without his talents. He's quite a nimble vocalist, especially when he dips into New Orleans jazz and scruffy blue-eyed soul. But as a document of today's crossover folk music, his set proved that abject sincerity is the new Auto-Tune, a device used to such a great degree that it's lost all novelty and impact.

After an early opening set from the eclectic Portland, Ore.,  alt-country act Blitzen Trapper, Lewis took to the Bowl with an air of inevitability. Los Angeles is the central character in many of her lyrics, and her clear alto has a "Ladies of the Canyon" witchiness. But her real source material is the tough-as-leather country of Patsy Cline.

Her smallish backing band, with boyfriend Johnathan Rice on guitar, made an Opry-sized racket and proved that a full-time tambourine player and harmonist is a useful asset. "You Are What You Love" was a spry catalog of romantic misadventures, and the sprawling "Jack Killed Mom" demonstrated Lewis' skill with a long, menacing story-song.

There's an arched eyebrow to her sensibility that grounded even her more throwback, CSNY-leaning tunes such as "Sing a Song for Them" and "Acid Tongue" in hard-won truths.

At first glance, LaMontagne appeared to be up to something similar. The tangles of his beard, the wisp of his vocals, the specificity of his lyrics -- all double down on homespun authenticity as the highest virtue for a songwriter. With the Bowl's orchestra, the first few songs had an appealingly sylvan quality.

But his barrage of imagery grew more false with each passing tune. In his lyrics, LaMontagne can't just be a bit of a liar, he has to have "cracked and dusty dime store lips." A lover can't be quietly distressed, instead it "seems like everywhere you turn, catastrophe it reigns."

LaMontagne was better when he dropped the aching lumberjack act and swung a bit farther south for influences. "Hey Me, Hey Mama" was rousing, swampy Cajun swing, and he was harrowing on darker cuts such as "Till The Sun Turns Black." But where Nick Drake's visions of pink moons trailed him to a sad, young death, LaMontagne's demons never seem to follow him farther than a farmhouse kitchen, where the kettle is always on, something warm is in the oven and a good woman is ready to overlook all your shortcomings.

Comforting stuff, but nothing like folk music at all.

--August Brown

Photo credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times