Music: Ryan Montbleau Band Live in Chicago

This space has been used a couple of times to talk about absurdly talented musicians that have flown under the radar for reasons that are totally beyond my understanding. While the music scene has changed quite a bit over the past few years–one can now do a lot of damage up on stage with a thumb drive–the ‘guy with a guitar and something to say’ still has a place in our culture and likely always will.

Last weekend in Chicago, Spring Awakening Music Festival packed thousands of people into Soldier Field to rock out to beats generated from a Macbook. Last night, a little ways to the west of Soldier Field, a couple hundred showed up to Chicago’s City Winery to listen to a songbird with a guitar sing to us with words and rhythms generated from his own imagination.

Ryan Montbleau is a singer-songwriter from the Boston area who has been plugging away for over a decade, putting out consistently phenomenal albums and playing stunningly impressive live shows through frequent tours. Montbleau is an accomplished musician technically; the man can play the shit out of a guitar, and he’s got a great voice, but his true talent lies in songwriting. Every singer wants to be a songwriter, but being able to put lyrics and songs together is another kind of skill altogether.

Montbleau has a type of clever charm to him, in that you always feel like you’re in on the joke together. “I’ve been at this for 12 years,” he said to the crowd last night between songs. “And I’ve gone from an unknown singer-songwriter from Massachusetts, to a virtually unknown singer-songwriter from Massachusetts.”

Montbleau is touring off of his new album with Ryan Montbleau Band, Growing LightThe album is a mature evolution of his band’s music, with a polished, focused 10 songs ranging from straight up rockers (“Pacing Like Prince”) to funky jams (“Glad”) to introspective slow burners (“Together”). Seeing Ryan Montbleau Band live is to experience all of these different moods within his set. Montbleau also stacks the band with great musicians–his keyboardist in Chicago, Beau Sasser, ripped off multiple flashy solos, while his guitarist Will Bernard kept a schooled level of playing the entire night.

The show last night saw a mix of old and new–Montbleau started us off with the first two tracks of the new album, “Growing Light” and “Inevitable”, and mixed in the new songs with a best-of showing of RMB hits (well, hits is a strong word), including fan favorites “75 and Sunny”, “Songbird”, and a solo acoustic version of his classic “Stretch”. He also ripped off a couple of covers, including a pretty badass and unexpected version of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

Montbleau keeps it positive throughout the show, participating in some banter with the crowd–though I’ve seen him at a solo show talk much more to the audience than he did last night–but you can’t help feeling like he’s ready (and let’s face it, good enough) for bigger things. He sold out the room last night, and nearly tore the roof off with his set-closing jam on “Pacing LIke Prince” and then the encore, which was positivity anthem “I Can’t Wait”.

Montbleau did things on stage last night that can’t be done on a hard drive, but it seems we as a culture still insist on wearing down our songbirds, making them earn their living through relentless touring and hawking merchandise post-show. “I’ve been touring nonstop for 12 years,” he sighed into the microphone mid-set. “And I’m tired.”

If you take nothing else out of this: it’s so important to continue to support live music. In this era of cheap songs and short attention spans, of boom-or-bust musicians who it seems are either unknowns or playing giant arenas, there are so many great musicians toiling under the radar and plying their craft, busting their ass to create quality music. They have the talent to make you nod your head to the beat, to pull your imagination out, to wow you with the poetry of their words.

These people are still out there. Rearrange what your plans are for the night time, show up at the right time, let them sing you their songs. Sing along. Just go and see them. Ryan Montbleau would be a good place to start.

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