The fact that David Gray is able to nearly fill massive venues across the world almost 15 years after the release of his lone global breakthrough (1999’s White Ladder) is somewhat perplexing. This isn’t because Gray himself is bad; he, in fact, remains one of the most underrated singer/songwriters out there. But in going through his discography, it doesn’t take one long to realize just how off-kilter he is compared to his contemporaneous singer/songwriters. His chord progressions are often unpredictable and at times unsettling (“When I Was in Your Heart” from 2010’s Foundling); his choruses typically rely on repeated simple phrases (“It takes a lot of love” from fan favorite “My Oh My”); and, most of all, his lyrics, while rich with playful alliteration and intriguing images, at times become too surreal for their own good (“There are carnivals of silverfish waiting to dance upon our bones” from 2009’s Draw the Line). He’s easy to admire, but it’s equally easy to be confounded by how popular he remains, given the type of fare that typically does well in the mainstream public.
By the time his set concluded at Chicago’s FirstBank Merit Pavilion at Northerly Island, however, all of his eccentricities were easy to forget, as he’s a performer who gives it his all. A tune like Draw the Line‘s “Nemesis” seems unassuming on the surface: lots of repeated lyrical phrases, a simple guitar lick of the ilk that Coldplay spent much of the ’00s refining, and a relaxed, mid-tempo pace. Stunningly, Gray took this cut and blew it up to epic proportions at Northerly Island, playing the thing out for nearly ten minutes. Just as the song was about to lull, he and the rest of his six-piece band dove straight into a thrilling coda, magnified by some impressive stage lighting. On its own, “Nemesis” proved a formidable demonstration of Gray’s stage presence; but, as if that weren’t enough, Gray pulled the same trick with the slightly brisk “Please Forgive Me”, which turned into a driving number that closed out the pre-encore set with gusto that was met by equally enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.
This ability of Gray and his performers was much needed, as the album Gray is touring at the moment, Mutineers, represents some of his most mid-tempo and staid work. (Foundling remains the portrait of Gray at his most austere by some measure, however.) In the breadth of his quietly impressive catalogue, Mutineers is, in my view, a minor moment. What for me is Gray’s finest hour, his 2005 masterpiece Life in Slow Motion, was sadly only represented by one song at this Chicago stop, “The One I Love”, which served as the enthusiastic finale for the evening. But despite not warming up to Mutineers all that much, I nonetheless left Northerly Island (right at the venue’s strict 11pm curfew) a satisfied concertgoer. Gray is a rarity amongst to contemporary songwriters, and to see him live in any capacity is a true pleasure.
Whoever booked Gray at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion had to have known just how ideal the venue is for him, particularly given the nautical and bird-centric imagery that runs not only through Mutineers but also through Gray’s discography. Northerly Island is an artificially-made peninsula that just barely juts out into Lake Michigan, right near Chicago’s famous Loop. Being right on the water allowed for many of the echoey piano ballads to really hit home, and the presence of birds overhead enhanced the authenticity of some of Gray’s lyrics, which in many cases deal with the song-like quality of birds. He opened the show with Mutineers‘s strongest tracks, the avian odes “Birds of the High Arctic” and “As the Crow Flies”, which formed a smart opening anti-salvo. “Birds of the High Arctic”, at least as performed on the LP version, is a stark piano ballad, which created the momentum of a slow burn for the entirety of the set. “As the Crow Flies”, while faster than “Birds of the High Arctic”, is still not the explosive opener one would expect at a concert of this size. But, of course, Gray isn’t the kind of songwriter one expects, a fact which made this evening particularly enjoyable.
Mutineers was the primary occupier of the setlist; the record was performed almost in its entirety. Naturally, Gray couldn’t avoid playing the hits: “Sail Away”, “Please Forgive Me”, and “This Year’s Love” all received commendable performances. (I could have done without the largely middle-aged crowd going into full-on “we just left the babysitter at home, so let’s get romantic” mode during the latter three of those songs, but fortunately it didn’t last too long.)
And then, of course, there was “Babylon”, the song that the average person on the street is likely to know Gray for. Wisely, rather than going through a tired retread (see: the enthusiasm of Liam Gallagher during any performance of “Wonderwall”), Gray performed the song by himself, and encouraged the sizeable audience to sing along, which they did—to my ears, nearly to the point of hoarseness. It’s easy for an artist to phone in a fan favorite, but Gray sang the tune with a smile on his face, a clear indication that, all these years later, he hasn’t stopped loving what he’s doing. Witnessing this, a genuinely original musician giving a splendid performance, is a really rewarding thing. I may not have the biggest admiration for Mutineers, but my appreciation for Gray only grew after this concert.
Tentative Setlist (left column) and Final Setlist (right column) [Author’s note: due to time restrictions, “Alibi” was cut out of the encore.]
You can view photos of the concert at David Gray’s Facebook page.