David Gray Runs A Tight Ship At Royal Festival Hall

For a popular musician, it’s a simple equation: bigger venue = more casual listeners = bigger demand for the hits.

So, say, U2 wouldn’t be able to play most of their latest album from start to finish at Wembley Stadium. But put them in a club in front of 250 rabid fans, and they could get away with murder (or Bono pontificating for two hours straight).

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David Gray has realised this. He’s not about to do rap reinterpretations of obscure B-sides at The Slaughtered Lamb. But, by choosing venues he can easily fill, the singer-songwriter has a lot more freedom to do what he wants. And what he wants is to begin his performance with eight brand new songs in a row.

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It’s a gamble, even with so many diehards amongst the 2900 who’ve filled London’s Royal Festival Hall tonight. While these tracks once again showcase Gray’s distinctively emotive rasp and impeccable ear for melody, they’re far more ambitious, obtuse, and unashamedly experimental than the direct (albeit slightly forlorn) verse-chorus-verse singalongs of 1998’s breakout LP White Ladder.

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Only complicating matters (for Gray and his unflappable four-piece band) are the venue’s intimacy and pristine acoustics. Both leave no room to hide. The audience would know if they’re not hearing the exact performance they’re seeing. And, with no audio trickery to cover up the cracks, any half-arsed playing would ring, loud and clear, around the concert hall.

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Again, Gray has realised this. Many of the tracks on Gold In A Brass Age are built around intricate loops that he tirelessly recreates live on stage with various miniature guitars (and in the case of A Tight Ship‘s ethereal Sigur Ros backing vocals by singing into the body of his acoustic six string) before sitting down at his keyboard. Not just an exercise in concentrated precision, it’s also a bit of a physical workout for the singer (and his unflustered guitar tech) as he’ll frequently stand up from his keys to add a smattering of subtle sonic textures.

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The 100% handcrafted results are quite glorious. The Sapling, the most instant of the new songs, grows from a few keyboard chords and skittish beats into a jaunty summertime anthem big on vocal melodies and bouncy drumming.

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The meditative Furthering, which punctuates a considered rhythm with flourishes of sparkling guitars and shimmering keys, wouldn’t sound out of place on Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, while Ridiculous Heart seems to draw inspiration from jazz without sounding up itself or (even worse) smooth.

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A Tight Ship showcases the contributions of producer Ben De Vries who alternates between synth bleeps and lush keyboard strings over a bed of swinging drums that eventually subside to reveal an unexpected strain of ambient guitars not used so effectively or unexpectedly since Michael Brook teamed up with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on Night Song.

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As Gray unfurls one new offerings after another, each backdropped by tattoo artist Londonboy Tattooer‘s illustrations, it becomes clear that not just his approach to songwriting has changed. His singing on Gold In A Brass Age is intentionally restrained, which only makes the band’s towering backing vocals on the hypnotic afro-celtic title track even more sumptuous.

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Although the results sound effortless, these songs demand concentration from audience and musicians alike. So after Gray ends the new LP showcase with If 8 Were 9 he breathes an audible sigh of relief before positively bounding into a buoyant Sail Away.

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The celebratory mood is sustained by a balanced, well-paced set big on heavy hitters from White Ladder and its follow-ups A New Day In Midnight and Life In Slow Motion. Gray, playing his hometown, is on top form throughout, whether he’s striking a pose in response to a shout of “looking good”, throwing his head back to belt out lines like “We can twist and shout”, mock urging the crowd to put some effort into their applause, or unashamedly dad dancing like no-one’s watching during a pulsating Please Forgive Me that has everybody else on their feet too.

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In fact, every time Gray pulls out one of his biggest songs, this concert hall performance takes on the unifying energy of the best stadium shows. With a rip-roaring solo rendition of The One I Love, plaintive This Year’s Love, and shimmering Babylon (boasting the perfectly fitting line “Sunday all the lights of London shining”), Gray can have his cake and eat it too.

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Review of David Gray @ Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 17th March by Nils van der Linden. Photographs by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk

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