(Above: A 2006 performance of “Freedom” at Hammersmith Apollo Theater in London. When David Gray returned to the song at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, it was one of several stand-out moments during the show.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
David Gray rewarded a decade’s worth of patience Wednesday night at a sold-out Uptown Theater. The English singer-songwriter broke through in America with the release of his album “White Ladder” in 2000. Gray has released three additional albums since then, but this was his first performance in Kansas City.
The set stopped just shy of two hours, and drew almost exclusively from those albums, tipping slightly toward last fall’s “Draw the Line.”
The crowd didn’t need a reason to get excited, but Gray gave them incentive anyway, pulling out heavy hitter “Sail Away” early. Directing the audience into the chorus with a broad sweep of his arm, the performance felt like an encore. It was the second number of the night.
Once he held the crowd, Gray never let them go. Or rather, the crowd never let go of him. Even quiet numbers were assaulted with proclamations of love and song requests. The opening chords of “Babylon,” the song that likely introduced a lot of the audience to Gray, drew an evangelic fervor. Arms were waved and voices raised as the congregation celebrated every syllable of the song.
A couple times early on, Gray shook his head and wiped his face as if to shut out the relentless adoration, but the performances were too strong to be capsized by the overzealous assembly. Much of the credit for this goes to Gray’s four-piece backing band.
All of the members save one were lined up on the lip of the stage, adding further intimacy to the evening. Positioned at extreme stage left, drummer Keith Prior was the secret weapon, adding urgency and energy in all the right places, yet knowing exactly when to back off.
On “Now and Always” bass player Robbie Malone added a great bass line to Gray’s wailing harmonica that left the song sounding like a train in the distance. Guitarist Neill MacColl contributed great slide guitar to “Be Mine” and “Fugitive.” He also delivered especially nimble line on “Nemesis.” Behind them all, keyboard player James Hallaway was the subtle glue that held everything together.
Shifting from guitar to piano, Gray was spectacular regardless of the setting, be it the spare, solo piano of “Ain’t No Love,” the hushed acoustic guitar of “Kathleen,” or an epic full-band performance like “Freedom.” Whatever he played and however he delivered them, Gray’s songs all bore a certain similarity. Many of them started at a glacier’s pace. Like an iceberg, they didn’t appear to be moving, then would suddenly tower over everything, overwhelming the surroundings with their strength and beauty.
With touch of echo on the vocals and a starry backdrop, “The Other Side” seemed to be emanating from the Flint Hills. It was one of the more powerful performances of the night, but “Nemesis,” the next number, was even better. As thin beams of light bounced off a mirror ball and sprayed into the space, Gray closed his eyes and threw his arms out over his guitar as if healing the room. Meanwhile, everyone prayed it wouldn’t be another ten years until his return.
Phosphorescent: This pleasant, low-key act from New York was the perfect complement to Gray’s asthetic. The quintet’s 30-minute set caught fire with a pair of Willie Nelson covers: “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” and “Reasons to Quit.” Unfortunately, just when they started to build momentum, time elapsed. They would definitely be worth a closer look in a smaller venue, like Davy’s Uptown.
Draw the Line; Sail Away; Jackdaw; World To Me; Now and Always; Kathleen; Babylon; Be Mine; Stella the Artist; Slow Motion; Freedom; Ain’t No Love; Fugitive; The One I Love. Encore: This Year’s Love; The Other Side; Nemesis; Please Forgive Me.