Out & About: Singer-songwriters change directions

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A pair of singer-songwriters who are following new muses and changing directions dominate the upcoming performing arts calendar.

Box office-wise, the biggest concert will be Ray LaMontagne’s May 27 appearance at the Cumberland County Civic Center. He’s launching a summer tour in support of “Supernova,” his newly released CD. That title represents a celebration of a fresh creative process underpinning LaMontagne’s work.

Anna Lombard, a southern Maine singer-songwriter who is best known as co-founder and lead singer of Gypsy Tailwind, has been changing directions over the past year. Last summer she released a solo CD, and this Sunday she’ll be performing in Portland.

In theater, Portland Players is wrapping up 2013-2014 with a fine community production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” a tuneful and thoughtful musical adaptation a true Lone Star State story.

Ray LaMontagne

It’s been a decade since singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne emerged from a Lewiston shoe factory to become a major force in American music. After bursting out of the metaphorical starting gate, he released four CDs between 2004 and 2010. The latter, titled “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise,” won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

But despite his growing popularity with critics and fans, LaMontagne said that he was losing a creative struggle – mostly with himself – and found it nearly impossible to progress with his music. He got so depressed that he considered quitting, he told Rolling Stone writer Patrick Doyle.

But a couple of years ago, a flash of insight into his own contorted creative process led to a renewed burst of energy. The result is LaMontagne’s first new album since 2010. The title, “Supernova,” epitomizes a forceful rebirth of his musical mojo.

The key was to allow his spontaneity to take charge. “I’ve always written with this slave driver’s critical mind lashing me,” he told Rolling Stone. “But this time I just let the songs happen.”

The result is liberating he explains: “The whole record was written that way. It was playful and really wonderful. It felt the way it feels in the beginning, when you’re first writing songs. They’re not precious in any way. It’s just a joyful, emotional truth, not like anything that’s being dredged up. I just ran with it, man. It was a great feeling.”

“Supernova” was officially released a month ago and now LaMontagne – who lives in western Massachusetts nowadays – is embarking on a national supporting tour, beginning next week in Portland. He’s put together a new backing band for the tour, and “Supernova” has some new arrangements that allow him to play electric guitar on stage.

Catch Ray LaMontagne on May 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Cumberland County Civic Center. Call 775-3458.

Anna Lombard and The Boston Boys

Maine singer-songwriter Anna Lombard strikes me as both a chameleon and an enigma.

Chameleon? Her singing boasts many colorations and she seems to seamlessly blend into a variety of formats. She can alternate between subtle and understated elegance and in-your-face gale force. One moment she can be comfortable and effective in the girl-with-guitar tradition of Joan Baez, but she’s equally adept at up-sizing her performances as the lead singer of a rocking band.

Enigma? There always seems to be something mysterious that’s lurking just outside her main theme, nuances of meaning that subtly color her music without being overtly present.

What’s always present is her superb soprano voice, and the key to her success is discovering new ways to shape it and mold it and embrace her material.

Lombard first came to prominence in 2008 as the co-founder and lead singer of Gypsy Tailwind, a modern roots band based in Portland. Then last summer she radically simplified her music with a very personal CD, “Head Full of Bells,” which won accolades from critics and established her creds as a solo performer.

Lombard performs in Portland on Sunday, with opening act The Boston Boys, which describes itself as “future roots.” The Boston Boys hail from Brooklyn, N.Y., but take their name from the fact that they were first gathered by mandolinist, guitarist and lead singer Eric Robertson, who initiated the band while a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Instrumentation includes a resonator guitar – which harks back to the 1920s – as well as its modern electric replacement. Other elements of The Boston Boys’ sonic palette include fiddle and electric bass.

Catch Anna Lombard and The Boston Boys at 8 p.m. May 25 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland. Call 761-1757.

‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’

“Life’s a one-way ticket to nowhere,” laments Miss Mona, the principal character in Portland Players’ final production of the 2013-2014 season, but she’s certainly had an exciting ride over the years.

That’s the denouement of one of Broadway’s most surprising successes of the 1970s: “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” a wistful and melodic retelling of a true story from the Lone Star State.

The 1978 production was the product of three Texas writers. The book was by Larry King and Peter Masterson, while the score was penned by Carol Hall. The show garnered seven Tony Award nominations, winning two, and ran nearly four years on Broadway.

It’s based on the story of the Chicken Ranch, a high-class brothel that operated for most of the 20th century in LaGrange, Texas, until it was shuttered by government authorities on the heels of a crusade by a television reporter.

I loved Rebecca Rinaldi as Miss Mona, the proprietress. Much of Miss Mona’s life story – most of it connected with the Chicken Ranch – is told through the musical, and the audience builds strong bonds of empathy with Rinaldi’s portrayal. I also liked her opposites: corrupt-but-likeable Sheriff Ed Earl, played by Mark Barrasso, and The Governor, a political sleaze played by Alex Pratt. Another outstanding performance is given by Vincent Knue, as the self-righteous reporter, who appears with his own choir as entourage.

Among The Girls, I liked Brittany Burke as Shy, and Abigail Ackley, as Angel. Ashleigh St. Pierre has a few great moments playing the world-weary owner of a local restaurant. Michael Donovan ably helms the whole production, with music direction by David Delano.

Portland Players, 420 Cottage Road in South Portland, presents “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” through June 1 with 7:30 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call 799-7337.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested Anna Lombard would be fronting The Boston Boys.

Sidebar Elements

Anna Lombard, a Maine singer-songwriter who is best known as co-founder and lead singer of Gypsy Tailwind, will be appearing in a new collaboration with The Boston Boys this Sunday at One Longfellow Square in Portland.