Even on the largest stages, only a few feet separate the sideman from the lead singer. But looks can be deceiving and many a musician has been fooled, discovering that what looked like an easy leap is in actuality a chasm. Shane Fontayne is the latest to attempt the move toward center stage. A veteran guitarist who has played alongside Bruce Springsteen, the Mamas and the Papas, Steve Forbert and Maria McKee, Fontayne has just released his debut album as frontman, “What Nature Intended,” on his own Mile End label and NPR powerhouse KCRW has thrown their not inconsiderable weight behind the album.
The squawk and thump of electric guitar, bass and drums no longer denote teenage frustration but are simply shades in his musical palette, like the muted trumpet of Chris Botti and the harmonica of David McKelvry. His tasteful, unemphatic songs (imagine a more straightforward Joe Henry) could easily find their way onto the soundtracks of independent films or premium cable series. “Weight of the World” lumbers through a paranoid landscape, “Little Napoleons” is a pretty, McCartneyesque waltz, while “Marlene” is a forlorn romantic’s lullaby.
Fontayne knows how to pace his hourlong set, but his career as a sideman comes to the fore when he talks to the crowd: He has much to say, but hasn’t learned to edit himself. Making jokes, introducing his fine band (including the all-female rhythm section of Jennifer Condos and Karen Teperberg) and overexplaining his songs, he sounds like he’s doing an interview with an unheard interlocutor.