Rewind fifteen years and you’d find David Gray enjoying something of a heyday. White Ladder was well into platinum sales and, after three previous albums that had performed disappointingly, this small singer from Sale was suddenly something of a superstar. He was at every festival. On every television show. The album was one of those that were owned in households across the country, listened to by different generations of the same families.
Nowadays, his name is uttered a lot more sparingly. After six subsequent albums that failed to hit the heights of 1998’s mega success, you often only hear of him when people are discussing that album that they used to love. You might not have known that, though, if you judged his popularity only on the fervour of the crowd at this Thursday night gig at The Lowry. He still has fans, and they’re still very dedicated.
It could be this waning popularity, however, that has persuaded Gray to try a new direction with his latest album Mutineers. Employing producer and artist Andy Barlow, most famous for his work with electronic band Lamb, Gray has gone for something a little more fist-pumping, a little more keyboard heavy, and, dare I say it, a little more Coldplay. Maybe even a little bit Elton John. And this was very much reflected at The Lowry on July 3rd.
Back in the days of White Ladder, a David Gray gig was a simple affair. It was a man, a guitar, a few simple melodies, and a sing-along. And, of course, Gray’s signature move – the way he wobbles his head between every line of a song. Other than the head wobble, much of that simplicity is now gone. Opening with four songs from the latest album, Gray’s agenda was clear. He was here to please the fans, of course, but he was also determined to present this new self to the audience.
Unfortunately, this new self is a little too far removed from the old one. Watching Gray stand and wave his fists in the air while shaking his hips like Elvis Presley, is too much of an evolution from that man who used to sit on a stool in the centre of stage and make the best of the voice he was given. Through new tracks Birds of the High Arctic, Back in the World, Mutineers, and Beautiful Agony, it felt as though we may have stepped into the wrong room. Instead of the concert of a well-renowned acoustic singer, had we walked into the venue’s latest musical theatre offering?
But then came Last Summer. Another new track. But this time, one not so far removed from what we remember. Something more stripped back, slow, and accompanied by the wonderful cellist who had so far been subdued, her sound sucked under by the dramatics of the rest of the band. When a first trip back to White Ladder, with a similarly straightforward My Oh My, followed not far behind, it felt as though the set might actually be finding its feet a little. This song got the biggest reaction of the night so far, and probably more than a couple of people in the crowd were thankful for a return to the familiar.
Then came Please Forgive Me. As one of the two biggest hits of Gray’s career the introduction to the song was met with the expected roar; the first instance of the seated crowd getting to their feet, people lifting their drinks in the air and waving their arms. But there was something different about the song. Something electronic, something artificial. This acoustic anthem was now another example of a turn to the cheesy. When the same and possibly worse was done to Babylon, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a successful night.
To his credit, Gray is trying something new. From the hype around the latest album, and the return of his name on the airwaves, it might well work. Many in the crowd seemed to enjoy it. And there were some positives. As well as Last Summer and My Oh My, a stripped back version of This Year’s Love was also a reminder of better times. In choosing to finish with a perfectly pitched Sail Away, Gray even came close to rescuing some credibility from the night. More than anything, though, these successes only worked to highlight how much better Gray is when he sticks to what he used to do.
All of these feelings were accentuated further by Gray’s choice of support act, John Smith. Without a record label, this Devon-born folk singer tours the country extensively, for his own gigs, and as support for acts such as Gray, Iron and Wine, Jools Holland, and Gil Scott-Heron. He sits centre stage with his guitar, laughs and jokes with the audience, and lets his powerful voice and prose-like lyrics do the talking. His half-hour set had the room mesmerised. He closed with the haunting Winter, lifted the guitar onto his knee and played it like a drum with the palm of his hand, and in that moment, he did everything that Gray might have done fifteen years ago. Let’s hope Smith doesn’t change.