By BRUCE DENNILL
The mental image of David Gray that most music fans have is of the Englishman sitting at a piano as he sings, and being a relatively gentle, folky singer in terms of his performance style. So it’s interesting to be reminded, seeing him on stage, that he spends the bulk of his time standing with a variety of guitars – including some sort of curious-looking, longhorn electric instrument, possibly a Danelectro) – strapped around him, and that, from track one (Shine, the first song from Gray’s debut album), he commits to big, powerfully projected vocals. He repeatedly mentions that his Pretoria show is the last of the White Ladder world tour, and that much is evident in the strained sound of some of the biggest notes he hits vocally, though that’s not a complaint – the edgy timbre and the focused effort it takes to hit such notes cleanly both add to the power of the performance.
Act one is a mix of tracks from various other Gray releases, with the highlights being Flame Turns Blue, Be Mine, The One I Love and the beautiful Heart And Soul, a track from Gray’s pandemic release Skellig. Band and singer then take a break before coming back to play Gray’s breakthrough album, White Ladder, as per the tracklist. Listening to whole albums is not common practice anymore, so even long-time fans might not have the same familiarity with all of the tracks. The big hits are clustered up front and towards the end of the collection, with Please Forgive Me being the first and possibly most thorough showcase of drummer Craig McClune’s distinctive, eye-catching style. McClune doesn’t play in the first half, but as the creator of the idiosyncratic rhythms that drive the electro-tinged folk of the White Ladder songs, he is the best option for its live recreation. Following that is Babylon – Gray’s calling card and the night’s biggest spike in audience energy.
He gets a little intense during the album’s title track, making the ladder sound like a living being and demanding that the audience supports it, which is weird but charming. This Year’s Love is gentle but stirring before Sail Away starts another huge singalong before the concert ends, like the album, with a cover version – Soft Cell’s Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.
Unexpectedly, he stays with covers for the encore – more Soft Cell (Tainted Love) and then a couple of David Bowie tunes. That means the audience leaves the arena with another artist’s songs in their heads, which is a questionable outcome, but it’s in keeping with Gray’s gentle eccentricity. And that, along with the enduring hooks and the great-but-not-all-mainstream songwriting, is more then enough reward.