Both men are ultra-emotional singer-songwriters
who front diverse bands while playing acoustic guitars. Both have rabidly
devoted and ever-growing followings, and both have dominated
adult-alternative radio for the last few years now.
But while David Gray records for Dave Matthews’
record label, and there is a fair amount of overlap in the musicians’ core
audience of young urban professionals, the similarities end there.
Where Matthews is all about hippie
impressionism, endless meandering, and (I would say) dreadful
self-indulgence, Welsh native Gray is devoted to old-fashioned Beatlesesque
craftsmanship, creating sustained romantic moods, and stretching the
boundaries of modern folk-rock by seamlessly incorporating innovative
electronic soundscapes and fluid, mechanized dance grooves.
Touring in support of his recent fifth album,
the potent “A New Day at Midnight” (follow-up to his breakthrough hit,
1998’s “White Ladder”), Gray and his tight and subtle four-piece backing
band played a celebratory show at the UIC Pavilion Friday night, breaking
through to the arena level for the first time in Chicago.
The leap from small theaters to clubs seemed
effortless, a point Gray underscored by opening the show sitting alone at a
grand piano during an intimate reading of the understated beginning of “The
Other Side.” When the song kicked in midway through, the red velvet curtains
parted to find the band pushing hard behind him.
The rest of the night alternated between
high-octane arena-rock moments such as this one, and more understated
interludes like a spare version of the lovely ballad “Babylon” and a
powerful, stripped-down cover of Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me.”
A charming, good-humored everyman in blue jeans
and an untucked striped shirt, Gray beamed throughout the set, clearly
thrilled to be reaching the largest crowd of his career (many of whom sang
along with every word) after years of slogging it out in the trenches with
endless touring and independent recording.
The 18-song set suffered in spots from samey-sounding
melodies and an undue fondness for midtempo grooves, and Gray’s closest
collaborator, Clune (percussionist Craig McClune),
was unusually subdued, actually staying put behind his drum set throughout
the set. (He’s been known to abandon the drum throne to join Gray out front,
dancing beside the boss as the programmed drum loops percolate.)
But rollicking, emotional high points such as
“Be Mine,” “Dead in the Water,” “We’re Not Right,” and “Kangaroo” made it
easy to forgive the show’s slower stretches and Clune’s new reticence. By
playing for more than two hours, Gray certainly gave his fans their $45
worth, and to these ears, he was certainly more deserving of the fame and
adulation than his more famous mentor, Matthews.
Opening for Gray was Chicago singer, songwriter,
and pianist Rachael Yamagata, a veteran of the local bar band Bumpus who is
gearing up to record her first solo album for RCA. Fronting a spare bass and
drums trio, Yamagata joked that Gray’s audience keeps confusing her for Bic
Runga or Norah Jones.
In fact, her too-slick and rather derivative
songs more closely resembled those of the early Fiona Apple. And while they
weren’t unimpressive, they simply weren’t worthy as yet of arena-level