News Column

Ryan's blues

May 16, 2013

YellowBrix

May 16--The typical Ryan Montbleau song features crisp vocals, jaunty rhythms and thoughtful lyrics.

But there's nothing typical about Ryan Montbleau's songs, which leave even their composer searching for comparisons.

"I still have trouble describing us to people," said Montbleau, 35, a Peabody native who will play at Me&Thee tomorrow night, after opening duo Tall Heights. "We do a lot of things that just come naturally to us."

For the last 10 years that has included releasing eight albums, while playing in coffeeshops and rock clubs with five other Boston-based musicians in the Ryan Montbleau Band.

The group is also a mainstay at a number of festivals, including the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Conn., which this year will feature acts like The Black Crowes, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

Montbleau's band reached the top of the festival circuit when they were invited to this summer's Bonnaroo, a four-day event in Tennessee that draws 80,000 people and features the biggest names in popular music.

But Montbleau still enjoys the intimate settings in clubs like Me&Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead, which take him back to his roots in solo, acoustic performance.

"I get back to doing these things; that's how I started," he said. "It's a different kind of pressure. If you have five guys playing with you, if you make a mistake on guitar, no one notices. (Playing solo) it gets stripped down, and you are your own band."

While that puts extra focus on the performer, it can also reward the audience with musical nuances that would be lost in a different setting.

"You really need a listening environment to work," Montbleau said. "It lends itself to drawing people in, as opposed to beating them over the head with a beat. That's at the core of me."

One way Montbleau connects with audiences is through his lyrics, which are clever but direct, and brimming with messages he wants to share.

"At core, I consider myself a writer first," he said. "I need people to hear the words. I really want to make it clear."

Montbleau has had considerable success writing lyrics for other performers, including New Orleans sensation Trombone Shorty -- real name, Troy Andrews -- who plays a brand of music he calls "supafunkrock," and whose 2010 debut record was nominated for a Grammy.

Montbleau penned the lyrics for one song and lyrics and music for another song on Andrews' 2011 album "For True."

"The way I write, I like words to sound the way they naturally sound," Montbleau said. "I pay a lot of attention to the rhymes of words; it hopefully comes out kind of carefree."

Montbleau started writing in college, at Villanova in Philadelphia, where he had originally gone to study chemical engineering.

"Those four years were very formative to me," he said. "I was far from home and listened to a lot of blues, and started writing a lot of poetry."

Although he had been playing guitar for years, he started to take it more seriously.

"My father gave me a guitar when I was about 8, but I would pick it up, put it down," he said. "At Villanova I started playing a lot."

Montbleau didn't start singing until his senior year at college, but his vocal style is just as distinctive as his writing, pitching his lyrics out in a tumbling, soulful delivery that rises to a cry.

"I always thought I had this voice in there," he said. "I've been trying to learn how to use it."

Montbleau's taste has also developed over the years, starting with a childhood preference for "bubble gum pop and that R&B style, which led me back to Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder and the real stuff."

Along with the blues he learned in college, Montbleau has come to admire contemporary alternative rockers and singer/songwriters like Ray LaMontagne, Martin Sexton -- "We got to tour with him" -- Amos Lee, and Deb Talan, "now in The Weepies. She's been a huge one for me." Some hip-hop artists, including De La Soul, have also been important to Montbleau.

While he acknowledges that a number of traditional styles have influenced his music, Montbleau can't pin them down.

"In the heart of our band, there's something rooted in something older," he said. "I don't know how conscious that is. Some of our guys are jazz players, maybe it comes out in things we do. I'm drawn to older melodies."

Montbleau's dad was a musician, and there was music in the house while he was growing up, but his family was surprised when he chose a musical career.

"Literally as I was graduating college, I was thinking I wanted to do music," he said. "My parents thought I was a little crazy."

He spent four years living at home and working as a substitute teacher at Peabody High School -- experiences that made their way into his song "Substitute Teacher Blues" -- until his first album was released in 2002. That song recalls a double life of playing smoky clubs at night, while acting as a disciplinarian and role model by day.

"I'd like to see John Mayer do this," the lyrics say. "He'd probably run through those double doors."

But Montbleau has long since traded teaching for the rueful contemplation of life's absurdities that he conducts in his lyrics.

The band recently recorded a new album in New Orleans -- Montbleau now has the same manager as Trombone Shorty -- that will be released early next year. They also have material they are hoping to record in another album, which may be out even earlier.

"We have a lot of rootsy, American stuff, not on this record," he said, "that will be on another one."

IF YOU GO ... What: Ryan Montbleau, with Tall Heights When: Friday, May 17. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., performance at 8. Where: Me&Thee Coffeehouse, Unitarian Universalist Church, 28 Mugford St., Marblehead Tickets: $22 in advance at www.meandthee.org, $25 at the door. Information: 781-631-8987 or www.meandthee.org

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(c)2013 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.)

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