Over past years, plenty of couples have spent tender moments amid emotive tracks from songwriters David Gray and Amos Lee. Both have catalogs full of such favorites, so it’s understandable if listeners unfamiliar with either artist’s live prowess figured their co-headlining gig at Artpark on Saturday night would offer a serene evening perfect for amphitheater canoodling.
After Gray and Lee roared through twin 90-minute sets, the night proved otherwise, as the two – joined by opener Rachel Yamagata – delivered distinct helpings of plugged-in, pulsating offerings to stir and soothe a capacity crowd in Lewiston.
Those who’ve previously seen the prolific Gray live knew what they were getting into. Since arriving to international music audiences via 1993’s “A Century Ends” and breaking through with the wildly successful “White Ladder,” the Manchester-born artist has earned his reputation as a must-see act.
Able to deliver somber notes with rare poignancy while delivering exhilarating love songs with the head-twisting zeal of a soccer hooligan, Gray’s performances have augmented his work across 10 studio albums, including last year’s critically acclaimed “Mutineers.”
But despite that status on both sides of the Atlantic, Gray has learned from past tours that hedging his live bets with a co-headliner – as he did with Ray LaMontagne in 2010 – isn’t a bad idea.
Enter Amos Lee, the Philadelphia-born troubadour whose soulful style has previously complemented headline performances by the likes of Norah Jones and Dave Matthews. Combined, the two can carry a tour full of acoustic cuts, all while dazzling those not yet initiated to their live product.
Of the pair, Lee and his five-piece band went first, easing out of the gates with his slide-guitar accented “Windows Are Rolled Down” before wielding his acoustic chest-high for the Midnight Ramble-ready “Tricksters, Hucksters and Scamps.”
This was the first indication to those intent on sinking into their seats that the night wouldn’t double as a candlelight dinner. The second came on “Bottom of the Barrel,” with the thump of Annie Clements’ bass joining both Zach Djanikian’s saxophone and a sunglasses-clad Lee’s details of, earlier in the day, dipping his toes in the Niagara River.
By the time the sextet eventually sandwiched “Mission Bell,” stomper “Jesus” and the soul revival funk of “Cup of Sorrow” around a surprisingly moving cover of the Cranberries’ “Zombie,” many in attendance may have been wondering whether the show’s time slots should’ve been switched.
Thankfully, Gray wasn’t one of them, as he followed Lee’s stellar set with an emotionally amplified seven-minute version of recent creation “Birds of the High Arctic.” Mashing keys while illuminated under rays of white light, the singer was kinetic, eventually bouncing off his piano bench to lead the crowd through his song’s plaintive wails.
And this enthusiasm was a constant, whether on favorites “Sail Away” and “The One I Love,” or percussive salvation like “Fugitive,” with Gray strumming and shaking throughout like each chord’s a source of gleeful invigoration.
All provided such a charge that, when Gray did calm things down for tear-inducing tracks like “Slow Motion” and newlywed standard “This Year’s Love,” it seemed like pacing before a strong finish – and it was.
Frenetic “White Ladder” opener “Please Forgive Me” brought all Artpark tiers from their seats to clap Gray and his backing quartet to the end of their set; then those same hands applauded the band back out for the drunken realizations of necessary reconciliation on “Babylon.”
Before the night’s headliners could take the reins, attendees were treated to the work of singer/songwriter Yamagata, whose beautiful voice on offerings like the suggestive “What if I Leave” served as a gorgeous appetizer for early arrivals.