Ryan Montbleau finds his inner soul singer on a New Orleans holiday
The Ryan Montbleau Band has established itself as a sturdy outfit that serves feel-good funk and R&B-rooted rock at about 150 shows a year. The music is well suited for club, cruise and festival fans who like to groove and shake.
“Sometimes I run head-on with that, and it kinda bothers me,” says singer/guitarist Montbleau, 35. “Sometimes I don’t feel like throwing the dance party. I just want to be listened to.”
He should earn that more focused attention with For Higher. On this new album—which he recorded with New Orleans studio aces instead of his 10-year-old band—he centers on classic soul.
Montbleau had written songs for Trombone Shorty’s last two albums, produced by Galactic sax and harmonica player Ben Ellman. In turn, Ellman encouraged him to come cut his own record and assembled an all-star crew to accompany Montbleau: bassist George Porter Jr. (from the Meters), keyboardist Ivan Neville, guitarist Anders Osborne and drummer Simon Lott.
“The idea was ‘Why don’t I write tunes for myself and see what Ben could do with them?’ But I didn’t know it was going to be those guys!” the Peabody native says. “It definitely took me out of my comfort zone. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous going into it, mainly because of the material. I didn’t know what to bring in.”
He needn’t have worried. While Montbleau only started singing during his last semester at Villanova University, the album’s tracks showcase Montbleau as a pure vocalist. In addition to its six fine originals, For Higher features four covers, kicking off with Eddie Hinton’s breezy soul gem “Yeah Man” and Bill Withers’ “Heartbreak Road.”
“One lesson that I’ve finally come to learn is that you can’t hold on too tight,” says Montbleau, whose studio experience includes three albums recorded with his band as well as three solo outings. “As much as you want to try to make it perfect, some of the best stuff is the looser stuff. It was helpful to not have a complete vision of what the record was going to be. I mainly knew I had to sing my guts out.”
However, one of the most impressive qualities of For Higher is that Montbleau doesn’t push too hard. Instead, he sings with a laid-back but invested tone. It serves both his strengths and the songs, including Curtis Mayfield’s junkie lament “Here but I’m Gone,” which Montbleau inhabits with a conversational edge.
“In the past, I’ve had a tendency to over-sing a lot of things, with a lot of tension,” says Montbleau, crediting a Boston opera singer for teaching him how to ease up. “I’ve learned to relax.”
Any nerves about recording cold with New Orleans studio legends were likewise calmed, evidenced by the buoyant countdown to a spacey blues take on Rhinoceros’ “Sweet, Nice ’n’ High.”
“Every single guy was very nice and supportive of the music,” Montbleau says. “They were listening to every playback and slapping high fives.”
Montbleau’s bandmates—keyboardist Jason Cohen, guitarist Lyle Brewer, bassist Matt Giannaros, drummer James Cohen and percussionist Yahuba—also proved supportive.
“They said, ‘This just helps what we do,’” he recalls. “Everyone’s a true musician, and all we’ve done is want to get better for 10 years. They were psyched to listen to the parts because some of these songs we’ve already been playing.”
So expect some extra soul when the Ryan Montbleau Band hits late-summer festivals, including Naukabout in East Falmouth on Aug. 11, Redhook Fest in Portsmouth, N.H., on Aug. 18, Bread & Roses Heritage Festival in Lawrence on Sept. 3 and Life Is Good Festival in Canton on Sept. 22.
“It’s great now to get to play the bigger [festivals],” says Montbleau, who used to work the box office at Boston’s original House of Blues. “Everything has been a slow build.”
Though not for lack of effort. Montbleau’s band embraces streaming live shows for free and then posting them online for an optional fee. “That’s what we built our whole career on,” he says, “to get the music out there.”
The Ryan Montbleau Band plays the Naukabout Music Festival on Aug. 11.