Of the first two rock concerts to be staged at the remodeled Northrop Auditorium, who would’ve thought the more psychedelic one would be Saturday’s performance by mild-mannered folkie Ray LaMontagne — and not the one two weekends earlier with former Grateful Dead co-leader Bob Weir?
LaMontagne’s first Twin Cities date since headlining the 2011 Basilica Block Party did not exactly carry the dramatic weight of Bob Dylan going electric in the 1960s, but at times it did seem just as weird.
The New England-reared singer/songwriter, 41, performed in front of an enormous and impressively kaleidoscopic video backdrop that would have had 1960s-era Pink Floyd fans lighting up like fireflies. He also spent more than half the show playing electric guitar instead of strumming the acoustic six-string that used to always straddle his chest like a warm blanket.
The turn in tone felt even sharper than it does on LaMontagne’s latest record, “Supernova,” which was produced by the omnipresent Black Keys frontman, Dan Auerbach, with an obvious goal of adding more colors and textures to the artist’s palette.
Saturday’s set list featured all but one of the 10 tracks from “Supernova.” That was about four too many, and the overt ’60s-pothead styling was often a bit too much. Both of the slower new songs, “Airwaves” and “Pick Up the Gun,” for instance, buried LaMontagne’s golden, sandy voice under thick, dusty arrangements — think Calexico meets “Astral Weeks” — all too literally putting the audience to sleep.
To be fair, those extra-cushy new Northrop seats might have been a culprit in lulling the crowd. With its new four-tiered opera-house interior and alcohol prohibited inside the theater space (fans had to slam beers in the hallways between bands), Northrop was not the best venue for LaMontagne’s coming-out as an electrified rocker. Seats aside, it felt stiff Saturday.
Comparing the auditorium’s refined, regal aesthetic to prior gigs on the tour — including Milwaukee’s Summerfest a few nights earlier — LaMontagne commented, “We’ve been playing outdoors a lot, mostly to rowdy crowds, and certainly to stoned crowds.”
With a loosely elegant four-piece band that included both members of the opening act, the duo the Belle Brigade, LaMontagne did make a persuasive case for the stronger sound in the more up-tempo new songs “Lavender,” which followed “Gossip in the Grain” to open the show, and “Supernova,” which sounded way more “Brown Eyed Girl” than “Astral Weeks.” The echoes of Van Morrison continued through “Julia,” featuring Van the Man’s “Gloria” groove dragged out into a druggie climax.
LaMontagne deserves credit for experimenting and trying to break out of the congenial folk-rocker mold. But the best part of the concert still took that very shape: He and longtime bassist Zachariah Hickman played a three-song acoustic montage mid-show, when the singer’s raspy soul voice finally took center stage in “Jolene” and “Trouble.” In those moments, the new Northrop was on fire.
The full band’s rock approach also worked surprisingly well in updates of some of the older tunes. “Beg, Steal or Borrow” was pumped up like something by Elvis Costello & the Attractions, and the formerly front-porch-styled “Hey Me, Hey Mama” sounded way more like something from “The Basement Tapes” during the encore. That’s when the 2,500 fans finally got up from those plush seats and treated Saturday’s show like the rock concert it really wanted to be.