LIVE: Ray LaMontagne @ Brewery Ommegang, 7/4/18

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Review by Steven Stock

A stray storm cell set up camp over the hills south of Cooperstown on a muggy Fourth of July evening, dispensing scant relief from the heat and only an occasional spatter of rain, yet casting enough cloud-to-ground lightning to force early arrivals from Brewery Ommegang’s grassy natural amphitheater back to the shelter of their vehicles. That was the plan anyway – many were content to set their lawn chairs out in the parking area, while others tossed a Frisbee or played cornhole.

Luckily the cell eventually meandered to the northeast, the only casualty being a full third of Neko Case’s customary opening set. The eight songs we did get were glorious. Whether due to the lovely setting or the enforced brevity of her performance, Case seemed considerably more energetic and upbeat than she was at The Egg back in January. Though she opened with a confident rendition of “Man” and closed with the lovely “Hold On, Hold On,” the bulk of Case’s set was drawn from her scintillating new album Hell-On.

With a five-piece backing ensemble, Case was able to do full justice to the album’s layered production style, ripping through “Halls of Sarah,” the paradoxically infectious “Bad Luck” and “Queen of the Maritimes” in quick succession. “This Tornado Loves You,” from 2009’s Middle Cyclone, seemed especially apt given the threatening weather and served to remind us just how capably Case deploys nature and the elements in her songwriting. Case’s fall tour has a stop scheduled at the Bardavon 1869 Opera house in Poughkeepsie on September 21.

The stage crew made quick work of the equipment change, and the subsequent wait for Ray LaMontagne to take the stage had me longing for more Case. Turns out I should’ve been wishing for more LaMontagne! His husky voice has a compelling intimate quality, as if he were sharing confidences over a campfire rather than serenading thousands of fans. He doesn’t over-emote, which had the effect of making the audience lean in closer to catch every word.

Musically, LaMontagne has undergone an amazing transformation over the course of just seven albums. The rustic Americana of his first four efforts has given way to something wilder, more epic, at times psychedelic in its intensity, aided by some dazzling fretwork from guitarist Carl Broemel (on leave from My Morning Jacket) and a light show designed to provoke flashbacks from the Fillmore West. Selections such as “Julia” and “Paper Man” were appealing in their simplicity, but more typical of this set was the harrowing “Pick up a Gun” and the churning, final encore “The Changing Man/While it Still Beats.”

An evening that began with lightning ended with late-night fireworks, capping a memorable Fourth of July at Brewery Ommegang.

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