8/1/2014 – Bank of America Pavillion

Ten years after the release of his break-out album White Ladder, David Gray has once again loaded his tour bus with vinyls, this time to promote his tenth studio album, the new Mutineers. Straying quite drastically from previous releases, with up-tempo tracks, lyrical and musical experimentation, synths, and colorful instrumental flights, Mutineers is both a rebuff and a toast to all that Gray has created before.

Gray is a Mancunian singer-songwriter who, in addition to being well-known in England and Ireland, has established quite a following here in the States. In early August, Gray’s tour hit Boston.

As I found my way into the Bank of America Pavillion, Gray’s concert venue for the evening, I passed a group of middle-aged men wearing five different concert t-shirts, each a souvenir from one of Gray’s previous album tours. Although it’s been ten years since the release of White Ladder, his loyal fan base has stuck by him through the years; the audience was filled mostly by middle-aged couples with only a spattering of teens.

Despite the lull in album sales and popularity, Gray fans arrived with a bouncy sense of expectation and urgency. This concert had to be good. Although Gray released five studio albums as well as a compilation album in past years, Mutineers is his largest and finest effort since White Ladder.  Expectations were high.

John Smith opened the show with familiar-sounding folks songs and relaxed mannerisms. His performance would have have been been well-suited to a campfire, as he seemed like a good friend just strumming along on a guitar. After a set congruent with his simple name and simple stature, Smith humbly thanked his audience with a clumsy grin and youthful wave. The modesty and directness of this acoustic opener was a slow gift. It might as well have been the young David Gray himself, waving goodbye to an old stage and calmly exiting. Smith’s music, reminiscent of Gray’s previous style, set the stage for a deep contrast between Gray’s old and new music. When Gray jogged on stage, a roaring ovation immediately met his entrance. He didn’t waste a moment before jumping into performance with tracks from his new album.

Seated at an upright Kawai, Gray kicked off the show with “Birds of the High Arctic,” a soft ballad which eased fans into his newer repertoire. The song progressed significantly and evolved into a pop-rocker, equipped with supporting cello and entrancing harmonies. Gray was accompanied on stage by a motley crew of seven other musicians. The audience itched to show their appreciation and supported Gray with chants and grunts before erupting in a second celebratory ovation just a touch before the song’s last chord sounded. Gray accepted only a few seconds of applause before breaking into “Back in The World,” the first track off Mutineers. The song pulsed with passion and slight deviations from the recording, a clear by-product of Gray’s sheer excitement and eagerness to share his new sound. He opened his mouth for the chorus and I heard two voices gush: Gray’s pouring out of speakers, mingled with a woman’s voice, far off-key but equally matched in enthusiasm. She sat directly behind me and knew his every breath and lyric. Gray’s predictable chord progressions, while sometimes unremarkable, lend themselves well to singable tunes, even for the tone-deaf. Following quickly was “As The Crow Flies:” a tune reminiscent of the famous “This Year’s Love,” with a slow and serious tone but with driving percussion. The simple melodic lines provided a chance for Gray to improvise. He let his voice collapse into deep vocal drops at the end of each line and built up the song’s intensity gradually. Rather than toning down his energy in an attempt to mimic his recording, Gray reached for his upper register and belted the ending’s high notes. The song took hold of him and the huge, resulting sound was striking.

As he continued to explore his newer material, Gray stuck to the latest album’s clearly crafted order, so it wasn’t a great surprise when “Mutineers” and “Beautiful Agony” followed in quick succession. The speedy transitions were marked only by a change in color of his guitar strap. Even though these moments were brief, Gray looked uncomfortable being alone in silence with the audience without music serving as an intermediary barrier. And, although he did offer eye contact and surges of physical enthusiasm throughout his songs, transition banter was limited and he rarely interacted with his audience.

Back at the piano and at last dipping into his older collection, the nearly-forgotten “Fugitive” bellowed out from speakers into the hearts of truly devoted fans. The song elicited images of speeding down open roads, country vistas, and backseat jam sessions. Upon recognizing it, a teen in front of me rushed to her feet and began performing a jumping jack/head bobbing tribute dance. Her jig fed off the ricocheting jerks of Gray’s own head; he was putting his neck through quite the quake. Though I wouldn’t peg his old tunes as headbanging classics, his new music definitely offers strong rhythms and rock vibes. The visible appreciation marked by jumping fans suggested that perhaps not everyone was ready to leave the old shades of David Gray behind.

Although Mutineers is presented as an album of release and freedom, Gray himself felt at times very contained. While he left his comfort zone to produce the new album, it often felt like he was trying to convince us of the authenticity of this new change rather than owning it. Although he was notably passionate, his enthusiasm frequently faulted him. His squinting and belting often felt contrived, as though he knew he had to hit points A (melancholy sadness), B (passion-filled belts) and C (pain) in every song. The progression from point to point didn’t feel natural, despite the obvious emotion that went into the lyrics he was singing. Gray exudes natural talent, he just isn’t a natural performer.

The audience didn’t much seem to care about his performer tricks though, at the end of the show, their ceaseless cheers begged for an encore. Gray and his band returned from the wings swigging Heinekens, ready to play. He began at his piano with “Gulls,” a ballad with a wistful melody that sounds like the wind beneath seagull’s wings. “Sail Away” reminded fans why they were there: to celebrate the artist they fell in love with years ago. His finale, “The One I Love,” marked a bittersweet farewell to both his old style and the evening of music. Couples danced in the aisles and the tone-deaf woman paused in her sing-along. “He just melts the notes,” she whispered.

Although the encore was stunning, the concert as a whole was hard to pin down. I arrived hoping to hear and recognize the old beloved songs of White Ladder, and was honestly skeptical of the current music highlighted on this tour. I left humming the new and beautiful “Gulls.” The tunes will surely take some getting used to as they’re so different from older releases, but like any artist, Gray has to keep things fresh and moving. All in all, the performance settled in a comfortable “Gray” area, characterized by a mix of both old and new music, hints of new genres, and select moments of utter musical release.

New Sounds, New Shades (of) David Gray
Pros
  • Well-received performance
  • Smooth transitions
  • Inspired a loyal, eclectic mix of fans
Cons
  • Hardly any audience interaction
  • Enthusiasm felt forced at times
8Overall Score

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