At the age of 19, opener Jessica Lea Mayfield knows something about sincerity. The Kent, Ohio native's 2008 album With Blasphemy, So Hearfelt was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and landed on a few blog Top Tens, opened with the song "I'm Not Lonely Anymore" and the lines "I feel safe now, I feel good." Backed by electric guitar and drums but no bass, the irony was plain. Mayfield was virtually unknown to an audience that streamed in and grew progressively louder as her generous 45-minute set unwound.
To say this was a hostile crowd is to overstate the case. No one was ever threatened by a brigade of polo shirts who didn't survive to tell to the tale. Mayfield more than survived. Though her vocal range is limited, she puts her rasp to fine, unsentimental use, poised within the slurry phrasing, while drummer Ann Lillis splashed and pounded like a punk-deconstructed Levon Helm, and guitarist Richie Kirkpatrick laid the crackling swells on thick, perhaps a bit too thick, even as his amp, either by design or by the sound guy's choice, hummed and groaned like a turbine located in a distant zip code.
Her youth aside, Mayfield's potential, and sometimes the full realization of that potential, cut through the air. By her second and third songs, "Kiss Me Again" and "Bible Days," an anti-theist manifesto with lines like "God is punishing someone you love," she came off like the atmospheric indie rock great-grand daughter of Hank Williams, not because there's any honky tonk in her sound, but because her delivery makes the most of elementally lonesome lyrics, even as the rhymes flirt with the predictable. She can be sensual and doomed, as on "The One I Love Best" and slyly evocative on the final number, "For Today," which captured youthful love in a flashing image of a hand in a boy's back pocket and found her and the band finally leaning in as one, coming as close to rocking as they dared.
By 9:15 pm it was time for the headliner: The Eric Heywood Band (featuring Ray LaMontagne). You think I'm kidding? Even without introduction, from the first song, "You Are the Best Thing," I recognized Heywood's precisely placed, purely toned licks, his agile, mid-song moves from guitar to pedal steel, and the way he plays exactly the right part, even if it's never exactly the part anyone but he would have expected.
The former Son Volt guitarist (not to mention session ace and recent member of the Pretenders) is never ostentatious, never showboats, but he shapes the mood and contour of every song, as much or more so than LaMontagne's hoarse pleas, or bassist Jennifer Condos's spooky harmonies, or drummer Jay Bellarose's tom-heavy pounding and approximations of breezy jazz. The notoriously humble and generous LaMontagne knows he should be very kind to this expert band.
Just what should one expect from a LaMontagne show? Rock thrills? No. Group sing-a-longs? Just try it with these tunes, even with hits like "Trouble." You expect to mellow down easy. That's just what LaMontagne offered: A stream of relaxed and patiently paced grooves of peace, love and snuggling through life's little disasters. The set moved from "Hold You In My Arms" to "Let It Be Me" to "I Still Care About You" to "Empty," with the archetypally LaMontagnian confession, "Its the hurt I hide that fuels the fire inside me," all sung in the signature low growl that's somewhat less than six degrees of separation from Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth.
But LaMontagne can convey simple and intense beauty, as he did on the night's first solo song, "Burn," greeted by a welcome "Ssshhhh!!!" from various spots in the audience, and followed by one of his best narratives, "Jolene." LaMontagne isn't known as the chatty sort, but he did describe his first trip backstage at the Pageant, where he saw the wall of bras that had been thrown on stage over the years.
(At that invitation, ladies of St. Louis in the front rows, you should have known what to do.)
But by the end of the main set's last song, "Trouble," with wild fuzz pedal steel from Heywood, and even after the exquisite encore of "Roses and Cigarettes," "Till the Sun Turns Black" (a cryptic and nihilistic song that had couples dancing and making out), and "Wild Horses" (with extended, soulful harmonica break), the singer stood alone, without a trophy. He settled for a stray cry of "Ray, I love you!", "This song fucking kicks ass!" and a genuine if underwhelming ovation.