The artist with the best-selling album in Irish history played in Buffalo on Monday night, and it wasn't a self-important megastar wearing wraparound shades.
Singer/songwriter David Gray might not be quite as crazy popular on this side of the Atlantic as he is in Ireland, or his native England, but his earnest blend of sweeping, emotional pop and pretty, post-punk electronics has captured the imaginations of more than a couple of Yankees, especially since the record-setting album, "White Ladder," took the world by storm in 2000, unleashing the mesmerizing single "Babylon" on an unsuspecting public.
Judging by the politely antsy fans crowding the auditorium entrance at the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, many folks have stayed along for the ride. A decade after his most famous release, Gray is touring in support of his eighth album, "Draw the Line," which he has described as a bit of an artistic rebirth -- the result of feeling "very, very alive."
Gray and his solid four-piece group opened with a pair of tunes off the new album, the first being "Fugitive," a crisp, tasteful bit of guitar pop that found the bandleader's strong voice navigating its way through all the pretty chord changes.
This was followed by "Draw the Line," a minor-key rumination that showcased Gray's emotional range early. After the bright, driving hooks of "Fugitive" (clearly the album's lead single), this song wallowed in the muck of the human condition, but Gray was savvy enough to deliver lines like "Carnivals of silverfish/Waiting to dance upon our bones" without sounding maudlin.
Then, as the band busted out the first "White Ladder" cut of the night, it became clear that the audience was hungry to hear the classic stuff. Anchored on a simple, romantic request, "Sail Away" is a big, wide-eyed, lovely rock song, in which Gray's voice booms and soars, beckoning his lover to take to the water with him. In this context, the song's prominent slide-guitar runs sounded downright sensual. It was the first tune of the night that got people out of their seats.
As the show progressed, Gray ventured through his back catalog, announcing that this was his first-ever Buffalo show. He said he would try to fit 20 years of stuff into one night.
His instincts as a popular artist were on full display. Exhibiting that rare talent to channel the spirit of your biggest influences without limiting your own vision, Gray did his best Peter Gabriel impression on the song "Now and Always," pairing elegant vocal passages with a simple piano run, effects-heavy harmonica breakdowns and a light Afro-pop rhythm. "Slow Motion," a grand piano ballad marked by huge chords and huger harmonies, was cut straight from the Elton John mold. But on this night, there was no doubt that both songs were his.
A dependable purveyor of smartly arranged, completely likable pop music, and a songwriter who has no fear of the heady, poetic love song, Gray might not be selling records like he used to, but he is doing everything else just as well.
But as pleasant and assured as Gray's concert was, he wasn't the best performer on this night. The opening act was a band called Phosphorescent, a Brooklyn quintet with a hypnotic country-rock sound that hushed the crowd from the first note.
Marked by subdued guitars, artfully stacked piano chords and serpentine lyrical passages, the group sounded like Neil Young floating through the stratosphere. As it shared its most ethereal number of the night, full of tender acoustic plucking, four-part harmonies and vivid lyrical bursts ("We're naked, swirling like otters"), the crowd was reminded that sometimes, dreams can possess more truth than the cold light of day.
David GrayMonday night in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst.