Theater at Madison Square Garden
New York City
August 4, 2014
David Gray dances like there's nobody watching. Even in a packed NYC venue on a hot summer night.
Anticipation filled the dark and cavernous Theater at Madison Square Garden. Nearly each and every plush seat was filled by an audience who was dressed slightly nicer than the average concert crowd. Hand holding, cocktails and muted tones added to the giddy vibe of a massively orchestrated date night. Something special was right around the corner, akin to being handed a brightly wrapped gift with a huge bow on top.
Kicking off the evening was a brief but heartfelt and soulful set by Irish musician David Kitt. Kitt and fellow guitarist John Smith, both of Gray's ensemble, take turns serving as the opening act, a brilliant and cohesive concept that would be a great template for other tours.
Gray and his seven piece band took the stage at almost nine and from the first notes of "Back in the World," the spirit and high energy of the two hour show was apparent. With boyish good looks and appearing quite dapper in a deep slate pinstriped suit, Gray commanded the piano, guitar, harmonica and microphone like a ship captain, with the devoted following his every move. With his new CD Mutineers
(+180 RECORDS, 2014) and a back catalog that spans two decades and 9 additional releases, Gray would never be at a loss for material. But on this night, the focus was on the new songs and under carefully choreographed stage lights, Gray introduced the brand new tunes as well as featuring the favorites the crowd hoped to hear.
Each song from Mutineers found a spot in the set list with the exception of "Beautiful Agony." High points included "Snow in Vegas," "Cake and Eat it," and "Birds of the High Arctic."
The audience enthusiastically applauded each song and called to the stage. One middle-aged gentleman sitting close to the stage called out that he'd like to buy Gray a drink, to which he accepted and when asked what he would like, replied "It's up to you... something good! This could get interesting if it catches on!" Two songs later, the man delivered a drink to the front of the stage where Gray stood with his guitar and Gray proclaimed, "Cheers! Real people are so much better than the internet!" In the orchestra aisles, fans posed solo or in couples to take selfies so that Gray would appear in the background, cell phone flashes illuminating their faces briefly before they ducked back into their seats.
Watching Gray is witnessing a pure artist do his thing. Is he folk? Pop? Rock? It doesn't seem to matter. His music is a gorgeous blend of all three, with a beautiful streak of unashamed enthusiasm thrown in. He is lost in the music; he makes you want to dance because he is completely present in the moment. The lyrics are clever, the melodies draw you in. He is joyful performer. Almost goofy. And when he dances he doesn't seem to mind that the world is watching.
Gray engaged the crowd often with banter, his sense of humor obvious in stories like one that he shared before playing "The Incredible." He described," The song was born on an airplane. I was reading a book and thought of it. I went to the facilities to get it down on my iPhone and now we're hearing it," marveling at the way things occur.
To the far side of the venue, a fan was holding a sign on oak tag that was big but not visible from the stage. Gray squinted at it, saying, "Are you trying to get me to read the newspaper from there? I'm a pimp? Is that a compliment?" The crowd was his and he continued saying "Whether I'm a pimp or I'm a priest, whether I'm the most or the least, let's keep it simple," breaking into a stripped down version of "This Year's Love" with only three instruments present. His radio friendly "Babylon" morphed when presented as an acoustic performance with Gray on stage alone engulfed by a teepee of yellow spotlights and his guitar. Transforming the end of the song into a call and response with the audience was a magical interaction that could only be matched by a boisterous rendition of "Sail Away" that shook the floor underneath dancing feet.
Returning to the stage for three encores, "Gulls," "Alibi," and "The One I Love," Gray and company delivered a show that would echo in ears long after the venue emptied out.
Photo Credit: Christine Connallon
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[Additional article contributions by Mike Perciaccante