Criticizing David Gray is easy. It’s simple to make the argument that his songs are ubiquitous. Or that he doesn’t look like a proper rock star. Or that he refines his impression of Van Morrison with each new album. In fact, David Gray himself might be the first to stand forward and admit to each of these condemnations. He can securely declare them because they reflect what, now, is an ever-shrinking minority opinion of his music. Said music combines wonderful acoustic guitar picking with just enough synthesizer experimentation to steady a singing style that’s warm, folky and contemporary at the same time. The albums he releases will do the trick at almost any party—adjust the volume upwards and it’s danceable, or downwards for dinner. Although you’ll swear you’ve heard his lyrics before, you won’t know where. They sound like clichés only because their stories are universal, allowing anyone to take Gray’s pop tunes and apply them to his or her own life.
Of course, none of this warmth was to be found in San Francisco before Gray’s concert at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The streets were absent of any human being for blocks in all directions. While this isn’t entirely unusual for a Saturday night in the space between the downtown library and city hall, the torrential downpour was probably to blame. But the cozy interior of the concert hall was filled, literally, to the rafters with fans who ventured out on this rainy evening to see David Gray. The man obliged fans in full force, forsaking the longstanding rock and roll tradition of keeping a crowd waiting, or even using an opening band. Instead, David Gray and his accompanying four-piece band warmed up with a cover of Orbital’s majestic “Lush 3-1” right on time. It was a strange and wonderful choice that set the tone for the rest of the evening.
After the electronic tune up, Gray began the show in earnest with “Dead in the Water”, the opening number off his new album, A New Day at Midnight. The tone of a A New Day at Midnight‘s tracks was tempered by the passing of Gray’s father during the interim between the breakthrough success (after a decade of recording for tiny British boutique labels) of 1999’s White Ladder and its recording, yet none of the sweetness or soul was lost. “Dead in the Water” is a fine example of Gray’s ability to fuse a positive outlook with melancholy. The song’s swirling combination of chewy synth chords and Gray’s manic acoustic guitar strumming felt so good it was startling.
Then, without missing a beat, he followed up with the title track from White Ladder. It’s a beautiful tune about love and redemption, common themes for most of his work. The roaming melody sways slow and steady like a playground swing. His accompanying band, consisting of an electric guitarist, bassist and drummer, plus keyboard man, remained both anonymously and loyally with their lead singer throughout the set. Their devotion to Gray could be felt at the back of the room—they played like musicians who had been on the road together all their lives, buttressing one another’s playing with ease. Perhaps it’s because Gray epitomizes everything you hope a singer/songwriter can be in his performance. He plays with energy but not ego, allowing a minor flick of the guitar neck or a kick of his feet to emphasize what he sings.
Despite Gray’s vigorous outpouring, the crowd remained flat for the first half of the show. This didn’t seem to concern the man. Unlike many performers, who feed off the audience’s energy, Gray brought his own. He was having a great time in front of us, as if we were putting on a show for him. Jam bands like the Grateful Dead made entire careers by mastering the skill of taking the audience’s energy and incorporating it into the way they played. But David Gray, it appears, has the power to do exactly the opposite. He somehow transferred his power into the crowd, and brought us up to his level.
The rest of the first set was a series of switchbacks between the contents of the newer A New Day at Midnight and older material from White Ladder. While Gray admitted that the band was experiencing some technical difficulties, none were readily apparent. The layered electronic production on songs like “December” and “Last Boat to America” came through easily. As with many of Gray’s shows, he chose to alter the arrangement from the way it sounds on record. “Real Love”, for instance, was played slower and softer. This is a nice habit of Gray’s, perhaps his way of remixing his own work. Meanwhile, the mechanical problems didn’t extend to the giant video screens surrounding the stage. The screens were unusual for a medium-sized venue like the Civic Center, but nice for the folks in the balcony who probably couldn’t see as well. They were treated to Gray’s expressive face, which looked years older and far younger than it could possibly be, from song to song.
The material from White Ladder came off as fresh as when the CD became popular in the States three years ago. “Sail Away” and “My Oh My” had all of the couples in the hall clutching hands in post-Valentine’s Day bliss. Gray treated longtime fans to a few numbers from what he referred to as his breakthrough album, Sell, Sell, Sell, “Everytime” and “Late Night Radio”, both songs woven with the same soul revealing lyrics and sung with good-natured, expressive tone. Gray chose to end the first set with “Babylon”, the omnipresent tune from White Ladder that, for a time, was looped on every adult contemporary radio station in the world. You can’t fault the guy. After all, he didn’t struggle for a decade to turn his back on a hit. To his credit, he altered the arrangement of “Babylon” just enough to make it new, while still injecting it with the same sense of excitement and hopefulness.
The second set of the evening opened with Gray standing in front of a closed stage curtain, alone with his acoustic guitar. He charmed us with the plea of “This Year’s Love”, from White Ladder. Then, joined by an electric bassist, he rendered Van Morrison’s classic “And It Stoned Me”. The performance was surreal, considering all of the comparisons that have been made between Gray and Morrison, but also poignant and commanding. Gray ended the mini set alone again with “Coming Down”, which he claimed he wrote for his wife the last time he was away from her in San Francisco. The song was the most stripped down, sparse thing he played all night, and also the most brilliant. Gray’s performance of this old tune, originally recorded on 1994’s Flesh was worth the price of admission. He broke a string near the end, only to murmur an amused “bollocks!”, and finish the song to dropped jaws everywhere in the room.
Then the red curtains parted behind him, and he once again led the four-piece through some of the most highly charged numbers of the night. His drummer, who had been hunched over his kit for most of the show like a ‘60s mod, flung his shirt off and let loose. “Freedom” and “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” wound the crowd up. Any inkling of the night’s initial flatness was gone. Everyone was on their feet.
Gray ended the concert with a triumphant “Please Forgive Me”. But of course, there was nothing to apologize for, and it looked like he could have gone on for hours. Towards the end of the tune, he left his post deep in the stage, and began dancing around in exuberance. Gray captivated everyone present in a rare way, and we were all better for having been a part of that show. He and his band mates left everything on the stage, and it felt like the end of a tour even though they still had stops to make before heading home to England. This was evident in the group hug that they finished with, and in the wide grins everyone in attendance wore as we walked back out into the rainy San Francisco night.