David Gray. Castlebar Royal Theatre, 8 December, 2014.
For over two decades, Ireland has had a long protracted love affair with David Gray. The Irish public were the first to really embrace his music, and ever since the English singer songwriter released his earliest material, he has been a regular visitor here. Now nine albums into a career that has seen him go on to become a multi-million selling artist, tonight with band in tow, David Gray was in Castlebar Co. Mayo, on the third date of a short Irish tour that has also taken in shows in Dublin and Killkenny.
Photo: Eamon O'Neill
The Royal Theatre was filled to capacity as the lights dimmed and a moody rhythmic loop announced David Gray’s arrival on stage. Kicking off with ‘Birds Of The High Arctic’, the ambitious opus was a grand and dramatic opener. Backed by an impressive seven-piece band, and with a striking lighting display that included searching strobes, Gray seated at a piano conducted a carefully choreographed spectacle. Theatrically rising to his feet to gee up the audience during its most intensive passage, the song’s climax was balanced by a minimalist mournful closing section that saw a solo Gray return to the piano, just as when it had begun. It was a spectacular opening, perfectly encapsulating the show as a whole that was to follow.
The first half of the night focused solely on new album ‘Mutineers’. The introspective ‘As The Crow Flies’ featured Gray alternating between guitar and piano, while the foot-stomping ‘Back In The World’ really showed off his band’s abilities as singers, with its multi-part harmonies. The title track meanwhile, pulsed along as music box piano melded to chugging acoustic guitars, showcasing the variety of sounds that Gray’s band is capable of.
A show like this is built to be enjoyed in the seated confines of a theatre, and with each of the newer songs being multi-layered epics with extended running times and passages of light and shade, the theatre setting gives the audience the chance to enjoy every nuance of their performance. With such dense soundscapes, the aural quality of the show was critical, and tonight pleasingly, it was faultless, with instruments cutting through crisply and cleanly while layered vocal harmonies blended in chorus. Gray’s band is filled with consummate musicians, with each playing an important part. Irish guitarist David Kitt, who had earlier opened the night with a brief solo set, added subtle guitar passages, vocals and occasional piano, whilst local girl Niamh Farrell provided exquisite harmonies, as evidenced on ‘Kathleen’. Cello player Caroline Dale meanwhile, added colourful touches, particularly with her beautifully melodic solo during ‘Last Summer’.
David Gray’s on stage persona meanwhile, is a mishmash of different guises. Although for the most part he is essentially piano man, balladeer and troubadour, he bursts into life during the more energetic explosions in his show, coming across like game-show host come evangelical preacher come, well, demented lunatic. First urging the crowd to their feet during ‘Cake And Eat It’, and later during ‘The One I Love’, his shtick was truly engaging, and raised even the most rooted of the well-mannered Castlebar crowd to their feet.
With new album duly promoted, the second half of the show delved into Gray’s extensive back catalogue, and included a host of tracks from ubiquitous turn of the millennium world conquering album ‘White Ladder’. A sublime ‘My Oh My’, dedicated to Manchester United striker Marouane Fellaini, was followed by ‘Eyes Wide Open’, which highlighted just what a powerful voice Gray possesses. With his notes soaring over the widescreen dream state version of the song that the band brought to life, it was a spine-tingling performance.
With band leaving the stage, Gray took the crowd back to how it all began for him, performing an intimate solo set that featured some of his earliest material, including Irish hit single ‘Late Night Radio’. Introducing ‘Shine’, the first song from 1993’s debut album ‘A Century Ends’ meanwhile, he revealed that “It’s tradition for me to play this song the first time I play in a venue”. In a telling revelation of the dedication and longevity of his Irish fan base, the airing received one of the loudest applauses of the night.
The undeniable highlight of the evening however was an explosive extended take on ‘Please Forgive Me’. The opening track from his most famous album, it was a performance that was simply euphoric. Bursting with energy, the remarkable drum patterns provided by Keith Prior anchored the song as the show improbably turned into a rave, with flashing lights, thumping bass lines and programmed keyboards. With Gray enthusiastically encouraging the voices in the crowd, the song’s “every time I look at you” refrain became a glorious sing along. It was a stunning end to the main set, and clocking in at over seven minutes, was a joyous elongated celebration.
Following that show stopping performance, Gray encored solo playing his best known track ‘Babylon’. Aided by a note-perfect Castlebar audience who lent their voices in support, the contrasting difference between the two unique performances once again served to highlight the opposing extremes in the set. With the night coming to an end, a victorious run through ‘Nemesis’ from 2009’s ‘Draw The Line’ album was perfectly apt, with its “it’s been a long night” lyric perfectly summing up the previous two plus hours. It had indeed been a long night, however, this was happily so, and as the song reached its climactic crescendo, every audience member was out of their seats clapping their hands and stamping their feet in time. It was a rapturous end to an incredible night of music.
Earlier, when he sang; “this year’s love had better last”, David Gray could be safe in the knowledge that whatever relationship he was singing about, the one that he has with the Irish is still very much enduring after more than twenty years. Outside the weather may have been more suited to the birds of the high arctic that he sang about in his opening number, but tonight David Gray and band warmed the hearts of the Castlebar crowd, with a superb show. Entertaining and enthralling, tonight in the west of Ireland David Gray proved that he is still a world-class act.
First published on gigsandfestivals.co.uk, 10 December 2014.