Tuesday 8 July 2014: Head-swaying singer-songwriter and six-part harmonies enchant Bristol’s Colston Hall, and successfully brush off a Babylon-demanding heckler
onight’s venue, The Colston Hall in Bristol is a building of two halves: a gritty old town concert hall merged slightly awkwardly with a new, fancy, expensive copper-clad architect’s wet dream. Not that unlike the career of David Gray really – three albums of good old-fashioned (and largely under-appreciated) singer-songwriting merging at his ‘big moment’ (1998’s White Ladder) with polished beats and plaintive piano that set him on an entirely new trajectory.
Here we get a lovely mixture of the two. A perfectly weighted evening of new material, taken from this year’s return to form 10th album Mutineers, and road-worn classics for the White Ladder-philes. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the new album is fantastic. A sublime, optimistic charmer of a record that doles out majestic orchestral flourishes and subtle piano tinklings in equal measure. But would it a) translate into an equally immersive concert experience and b) keep all those come to hear Babylon happy?
Gray resolutely decided to give the new album enough room to breath this evening, and for those of us here to listen to a great ensemble band at the top of their game backing up a gravel-voiced, underrated singer-songwriter, we’re experiencing something of a masterclass.
All of the first six songs are from Mutineers, starting with Gulls, the last song on the album. Dark and melancholic, it immediately has the audience’s rapt attention as we move through Back In The World, As The Crow Flies and the album’s title track. We’re treated to all of Gray’s party pieces: huge towering choruses, foot stomping verses, manic harmonica playing and great cacophonous crescendos of noise. Then, at the perfect moment, the arrangements are broken down into sublime, simple vocal lines sung in places by Gray, his two female vocalists, and often the entire six-piece band.
Next we get ‘an average day inside the Gray brain’ on Beautiful Agony – for many the standout track on Mutineers – and he’s accompanied by soaring cello and feedback-laden e-bow guitar, swapping to ukulele on the Gallic-tinged Last Summer before finally offering up My Oh My and Sail Away to appease those who seem to have come just to hear White Ladder. Later in the gig he’ll encourage one particularly vocal audience, who had shouted “Play Babylon!” in every quiet moment, to “just please fuck off mate!” The crowd respond with applause and, as soon as the door closes behind the disgruntled heckler, Gray’s band launch straight into Babylon – a perfect music fan moment.
Alibi, from 2005’s Life In Slow Motion, takes on a raspy patina before the band launch into Nemesis – Draw The Line’s stand-out track – and in these surroundings it becomes an extraordinary ten-minute, transcendental hymn. It really is an amazing moment and Gray and his band are only just warming up. We get bowed cello and double bass on Ain’t No Love, powerful six-part harmonies on the jagged Cake And Eat It and more beautiful melodies on Snow In Vegas and Birds Of The High Arctic, before returning to more familiar ground with The One I Love and Please Forgive Me, where he jokes to “watch out for the bit at the end where my head goes all the way round.” It brings the house down and the band exit stage right.
Back out again for the encore to reverent silence and This Year’s Love, Shine (his ode to his beloved Pembrokeshire) and Fixative, then the classy ejection of the aforementioned heckler, before finally finishing with Babylon which sends Bristol’s middle class back to the suburbs very happy indeed.
We’d been treated to a proper singer-songwriter backed by a brilliant band, promoting possibly his best and most optimistic collection of songs. And, dare I say it, maybe Gray is now stepping into yet another defining period in an already long and varied career.
Words & Photography: Charlie Widdows