Arena Is Good Fit for Gray

February 9, 2003



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 attention.