Ryan Montbleau comes home with an accent

Southern comforts
By NICK A. ZAINO III  |  June 19, 2012

CRESCENT FRESH Peabody native Ryan Montbleau went down to New Orleans to record most of his
new record, For Higher.

It's a sleepy Monday night in April, and Ryan Montbleau is taking advantage of a rare opportunity to get out and see some friends and hear some music. It's a surprise to find him at the Lizard Lounge for the Open Mic Challenge, given his relentless touring schedule and the fact that his new solo album, For Higher, is set to hit shelves in a couple of weeks. Open mic host Tom Bianchi is happy to see his old pal at the bar, and points him out from the carpet that serves as the stage of the intimately lit venue.

Bianchi jokes with Montbleau and asks him the biggest place he's ever played. "We just played to 300,000 fans in Brazil," boasts Montbleau. "Really?" says Bianchi, to which Montbleau then quickly deadpans, "No." He humbly explains that he played mostly to people shuffling in to see the headliner. Bianchi and the crowd, most of them local musicians, laugh it up. They know Montbleau's career has been on the upswing, that he and his band were tapped to back up Martin Sexton on an opening slot for the Dave Matthews Band in 2010, and that Sexton produced the Ryan Montbleau Band's last studio record, Heavy on the Vine. One musician teases him about the backstage spread at the Matthews gig, which Montbleau jokes was amazing.

"It was pretty funny," says Montbleau, speaking by phone from the porch of the Lawrence home/practice space he shares with his drummer, James Cohen, and bassist, Matt Giannaros. "I mean, he put me on the spot, you know? Honestly, that's probably what I tell people most about the Dave Matthews shows was the catering was unbelievable."

Even with a short break last year, his conservative estimate for the Ryan Montbleau Band's average gigs per year is 160. "Last year we had taken some time off, so we were down to 140," he says. Most of the gigs are webcast live using the band's own soundboard run by an engineer who tours with them, and a setup developed by the band.

Montbleau never seems to stop moving. He celebrates the release of For Higher Saturday on a Rock and Blues Cruise in Boston Harbor, and last month he released a video for the Eddie Hinton cover "Yeah Man." He writes lyrics for New Orleans phenom Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and is hoping to do more collaborating with Soulive's Eric Krasno, with whom he wrote "Burning and Hiding" on the new album.

But he doesn't seem frenzied by all the activity. Open and easygoing, Montbleau is essentially a singer-songwriter, one who is at times introspective and wry, but also often optimistic. He is a nimble enough writer to move between folk, groovy jams, reggae, and soul, and his band is flexible enough to nail any style the song might require.

That chameleon-like nature served Montbleau well on For Higher. Nine of the album's 10 tracks were recorded in New Orleans instead of his usual Boston studio, and without the musicians in the Ryan Montbleau Band, most of whom he has played with for the past eight or nine years. Instead, he recorded with some New Orleans heavyweights — keyboard player Ivan Neville, bassist George Porter Jr. (of the Meters), drummer Simon Lott, guitarist Anders Osborne, and producer Ben Ellman.

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