Blues plus

Ryan Montbleau finds a home in the jam scene
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  June 25, 2007

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Ryan Montbleau Band, "Inspired By No One" (mp3)

Boston’s Ryan Montbleau doesn’t mind if you call his quintet a jam outfit. After all, the audiences who collect at festivals like the Gathering of the Vibes and High Sierra Music have taken his sound so close to heart that he no longer has to work a day gig as a substitute teacher. And the 29-year-old Peabody native fits the modern-jam-artist profile. These days, there’s a lot more to this scene than clones of the Grateful Dead or even Phish, and Montbleau writes songs that blend rock, blues, ragtime, folk, and soul and expands them on stage with full-band improvisations.

There is, however, one deviation, and that’s his skill with words. Lyrics are the Achilles’ heel of most bands on the jam scene. But Montbleau — who plays two shows on Boston Harbor’s “Rock & Blues Concert Cruise” on June 30 — tells stories with clarity and focus. His language is clear and grounded, whether he’s creating a portrait of a lover in “Inspired by No One” or paying homage to the beauty of life in “Variety,” which wraps images of soaring mountains, lapping seacoasts, and bright urban bustle in a blanket of sound culled from the vaults of classic ’70s Philly soul.

You’ll find those tunes on the Ryan Montbleau Band’s full-group debut, One Fine Color (7 Not), which follows 2003’s live, self-released solo acoustic, Stages, and his out-of-print 2002 disc, Begin. Released this past spring, the new album has created a fresh updraft for a career that’s been rising steadily ever since Montbleau began playing solo shows after graduating from Villanova in 1999.

“I’ve really worked hard to be a full-time musician,” he allows, “but if at any point people hadn’t responded to what I was doing, I would have stopped, or at least taken a day job and just done music on the side.” When we spoke, he and his band had just hopped into a van to leave for a festival in Kansas. He was anticipating his first downtime this year when he returned.

“It’s been non-stop. In the last year we’ve gone from playing some festivals and touring in the Northeast and down into the Carolinas and Georgia to doing shows across the country and staying on the road constantly. Some of the clubs are still pretty empty when we go into cities we haven’t played before, but even then I’d rather be on stage playing my guitar and singing than doing anything else.”

Montbleau’s lyrics are fortified by the voice that delivers them. He mixes the narrative strengths of old-school storytellers like Dylan and Steve Forbert with the quivering melismas of R&B pop. His tone ranges from regular-guy conversationalism to surging, arching phrases not unlike those Stevie Wonder might employ in relaxed voice.

“It’s kind of cheesy, but when I was a kid I was really into groups like New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe,” he admits with a laugh. “I would even rewind my tape recorder and listen to what I thought was an especially good vocal phrase over and over. I didn’t actually listen to guys like Dylan until I was already writing songs. I’ve never been all that interested in folk music compared to rock and contemporary R&B.”

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