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A sort of homecoming
DAVID GRAY’s sell-out December gig at Dublin’s Point Theatre was an intense, emotional affair. NIALL STANAGE reports on a remarkable night and offers a personal perspective on the singer-songwriter’s journey
Niall Stanage, 20 Jan 2000
“We got something they can’t stifle
With their price tags and picture frames
Got a flower for every rifle
Putting flesh on the bones of our dreams.”
TO PARAPHRASE Morrissey, some gigs are bigger than others. And they don’t come much bigger, in terms of both scale and significance, than David Gray’s sell-out show at The Point Theatre on 22nd December.
This was the night that Gray came of age; the night that all that nebulous talk of the Welshman as a “phenomenon” was made stunningly real; the night when flesh was put on so many long-held dreams.
As the incredible sales figures forWhite Ladder show, there are many people who have discovered Gray’s music for the first time in the past year. The more the merrier. But for all those who had kept the faith from the days of small bar gigs and snippets on No Disco, the Point gig was something special. They knew that Gray’s talent was awesome. Finally, after years of frustration, came the affirmation.
Oxford, 1993. THE SCENE is a typically draughty, leaky small venue. I’m here to see The Auteurs, whose first album, with its idiosyncratic brand of detached, pock-marked glam, has got the music press all in a lather. They play a mediocre set, too in love with their self-conscious sense of ‘cool’ to bother impressing anyone.
But it’s the support act who attracts my attention. I can’t make out his name. But there’s this guy slashing away at an acoustic guitar and roaring out the words in a voice that is gutteral and utterly distinctive. I strain to catch the lyrics, and those I can make out are articulate and passionate, expressing anger, lust, tenderness. The whole package is mind-blowing. I ask a few people if they know who he is. No-one does.
Months go by. One night, I’m watching late-night TV. Eddi Reader is presenting a music show from Glasgow. I see the same guy, and the song he plays knocks me out, again. This time I make sure I get his name – David Gray. Next day I buy an album called A Century Ends.
It’s the most exciting record I’ve heard in years. Sure, there is a nod to the classic singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s, but the music is stark and raw, and the lyrics pour out, all street-poetry and dark prophesy. Over the next few weeks I play the tape almost constantly. I can’t shake these songs out of my head. This guy matters. I’m converted.
Dublin, December 1999. THE SOLD-OUT posters have been appearing across the city for days beforehand, but it still seems strange to see a mammoth crowd snaking its way through crush barriers into The Point. The atmosphere is one of nervy anticipation. Success like this has long been predicted, and hoped for, with David Gray, but that only sharpens the doubts as to whether he can pull it off.
The band emerge into the spotlight and kick into a muscular version of ‘Sail Away’. There is a huge visual backdrop of an undulating ocean and people are swaying, singing, holding each other up. The performance is propulsive, direct and confident.
When the band back off and loosen up, though, the alchemical reaction between performer and audience really begins to bubble. ‘Lead Me Upstairs’, a tale of a desolate affair from A Century Ends is followed by ‘Babylon’ from White Ladder . Gray’s voice is sounding more free with each passing minute. The crowd react to every nuance, their responses ebbing and flowing with the dynamics created by the musicians. For the first time, it all coalesces into fragile, tangible magic.
London, 1994. GRAY’S SECOND album, Flesh, has just been released. As part of the promotional effort, he is playing the Borderline club on Charing Cross Road. Befitting a time when ‘Dadrock’ is just around the corner, Ian McNabb is headlining. In our interview, just prior to the soundcheck, Gray is downhearted, complaining that, “even if people had come out and slated the album, at least that would be something; at least it would be being noticed. But there’s been nothing, it’s just been totally ignored.”
Both of us know this isn’t strictly true, and I’m relieved when he mentions the Melody Maker review before I have to. It had predicted that he would end up “on the real ale and chunky sweater circuit.”
The gig isn’t much better. Gray tries hard to grab the audience’s attention, whether by bringing the volume way down on the likes of ‘The Light’ or trying to blast them out of their pint glasses with ‘What Are You?’. Neither works and a constant hubbub of disinterested chatter is maintained throughout.
McNabb proceeds to play a tediously stodgy set. By the time he is summoned back for an encore David Gray and his drummer, Clune, are standing backstage with myself and a couple from Galway who are trying to raise their spirits. McNabb walks past, the curtain is parted, and he goes back on to wild applause. Gray peers out through the chink between curtain and stage, turns back to us and, unsmiling, raises his eyebrows.
Dublin, December 1999: ‘PLEASE FORGIVE Me’, all beats and insidious rhythms, is ringing through The Point. The lights are going crazy and from above you can see a Mexican wave of movement all the way to the back of the hall. It is an extraordinary scene.
Soon, the stage is cleared to make way for a grand piano. The atmosphere shifts from arena show to that of a barroom as Gray plays one of his most beautiful songs, ‘Falling Free’. Truth be told, it’s less a song than a hymn – to love, to beauty, to all those transcendent, wondrous things that are, as the lyrics put it, “a million miles beyond what science understands.”
From there it’s in to ‘This Year’s Love’. You listen to the chorus:
“Won’t you kiss me on that midnight street/Sweep me off my feet/Singing ‘Ain’t this life so sweet’/This year’s love, it better last.”
And this song, that voice, those words and this night just get you in the gut and pull your heart wide open.
Belfast, 1995: KATY DALY’S, a small venue in the city centre. Gray is mid-gig. He tries to fade the music down to a whisper and is immediately sabotaged by the thumping beats from The Limelight, a larger venue next door. The stage has a peculiar wooden rail around its curved front and its resemblance to a ship’s deck leads Clune to make jokes all night about Captain Hook, the Good Ship Lollipop etc.
It’s the best that can be made of the situation. The show has been sloppily promoted, though there are promising signs of a hardcore fanbase developing, however small.
Nevertheless, Gray is still fighting a rearguard action. The audience, which can’t number more than 150, is divided between those who know every song, those whose appetite for more is being whetted, and those who couldn’t care less. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. And there is still that nagging feeling, at least in the minds of his followers, that an artist like that shouldn’t be playing a gig like this.
Afterwards, Gray is mingling with fans. His conversation riffs around the stupidity of the music industry, its sharks, its laziness, its desire to ‘capture’ artists and wring all individuality and passion from them.
Someone urges him to keep going because “it will work, eventually.”
“It’s got to,” he replies. “I don’t have any choice.”
Dublin, December 1999: GRAY IS back on stage, just him and an acoustic guitar. “This is the song that started all this… madness,” he announces, smiling, half-proud, half-baffled as to how things have panned out. He launches into ‘Shine’. It’s probably as close to a personal manifesto as he gets. It’s about holding on to courage and conviction rather than surrendering to negativity. It’s about keeping faith with what you cherish in a cruel world. It’s about love and loss.
“And as it unfolds, as it all unwinds/Remember your soul is the one thing you can’t compromise/Take my hand…/We’re going to go where we can shine.”
In the darkness, there’s a moment when you sense that 8,000 spines are tingling.
London, June 1999: THE FINSBURY Park Fleadh. Although it’s only mid-afternoon, and Gray’s material is not particularly suited to the demands of an open-air festival, he is delivering a set packed with conviction and energy. At times it’s inspired. The front rows are singing every word. Gray asks how many of them have travelled from Ireland. They cheer in unison. He shrugs his shoulders and laughs. But there is no longer the sense of bitterness, the notion that he has missed out on his just desserts.
Afterwards, the band mingle for a while backstage, but they have to leave soon enough – the following day they are headlining the Big Day Out in Galway. In the previous nine months, Gray has undertaken his most successful Irish tour ever, selling out five nights in various Dublin venues, and meeting with near-hysteria around the country. His album has taken up residence in the Top Ten. He is in the process of becoming a genuine A-list star. No-one can say exactly when it happened, but sometime in the recent past, the tide has turned. It’s going right. At last.
“Step into the silence, take it in your own two hands/Scatter it like diamonds, all across these lands,/Blaze it in the sunlight, wear it like an iron skin/The only things worth living for are innocence and magic./Amen.”
Dublin, December 1999: THE BAND exit the stage. If ever an ovation can be truly heartfelt, this is it. They return once more and power through ‘Silver Lining’ and ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’.
Gray then wanders across the stage with a bottle of champagne and sprays it into the crowd, before blasting into Elton’s ‘Your Song’. It’s transformed from a bittersweet and slightly bland tune into something powerful and euphoric. As he hits the chorus, the “you” of the lyrics is directed to his fans. The reaction almost blows the roof off. In that moment the realisation hits that this is the kind of gig you’re told doesn’t exist anymore – a communal, inclusive celebration.
Afterwards I run into some of the people who have supported Gray through the years. They’re emotional and a little shell-shocked. A few weeks later, White Ladder hits Number One, more than a year after its release.
It’s been a long, strange trip. But he did it. Along the way lie a thousand melding memories. Songs, people, gigs. Moments. Of innocence and magic. Amen.