David Gray | Review
Soma Festival: Down Cathedral • Friday 21 July 2017
By Kaity Hall • Photography: Tremaine Gregg
Ireland has a special affinity with David Gray. Describing in an interview with RTE in 2014 how “It was the Irish that first heard me and sort of let me sing” Ireland’s love for the Mancunian singer-songwriter was alive at the onset of his slow starting musical career. The fact that his 1998 album White Ladder remains to this day the best-selling album in Irish chart history contests to the devotion his Irish fans continue to nurture almost twenty years since its release.
So, it comes as no surprise really that his two shows at the intimate venue of Down Cathedral sold out rapidly. Performing as part of Soma, the small Castlewellan festival is in its fifth year running and David Gray secures their most well renowned artist yet.
With the audience packed into pews, there’s a palpable excitement in the air and the only thing keeping it in check is the beautiful backdrop of stained glass windows serving as a reminder that the venue is first and foremost a church.
The audience get warmed up with support from Niamh Farrell and Sean O’Meara. Beginning with a rendition of The Fureys ‘My Father’s House’, O’Meara’s gentle acoustic guitar accompanies Farrell’s impressive vocals in a very pared back but nonetheless captivating short set. Farrell’s vocals emanate through the church and have the audience rapt in this wistful, nostalgic cover so suitable for a summer evening away from the reaches of the city.
Lyrics teeming with imagery of green countryside and glimpses of sunshine continue in ‘The Summer Wind’ and a duet in the form of ‘If I Prove False to Thee’. Farrell has a good rapport with her audience and there are a couple of funny moments as she starts singing the incorrect song. It’s the ideal relief for a set filled primarily with slower more solemn songs and with the indulgent melancholia of David Gray soon to follow.
There isn’t much preamble before the main man makes his way to his make-shift stage. The intimacy of the venue is striking. Rather than being up on a raised stage, a considerable distance away from the audience, the microphone and instruments are only a few inches from the front row of the audience. For an artist that has been so successful throughout the years, it’s humbling that he’s content to perform in such a small venue.
As the lights go out, singing can be heard but Gray is nowhere to be seen. Eventually he enters, clapping and the whole church is clapping too. He performs ‘One Fine Morning’ with simply vocals and clapping. Not for the last time in the evening will the room be in awe at David Gray’s impressive vocal skill.
With the audience sufficiently warmed up, he jumps right into one of his earliest songs ‘Lead Me Upstairs’ from his first album, A Century Ends. Although his first three albums went largely unnoticed, Gray has clearly not lost any affinity or fondness for his earliest music and has no qualms about performing them.
It is immediately striking how Gray’s voice is just as flawless as on the albums we’ve listened to time and time again throughout the years. While he may strike similarities to artists such as Damien Rice or Foy Vance, his music continues to be unmistakably David Gray and to make such a unique mark in acoustic music, which can sound notoriously generic if you aren’t a frequent listener, is quite the feat.
Working through a number of his early songs such as ‘Gathering Dust’, ‘Flame Turns Blue’ and ‘Late Night Radio’; it’s clear that the White Ladder hits are being saved until the end. Including these early hits yields much more breadth and showcases how Gray has developed within his own niche throughout the years.
This particularly rings true during his performance of ‘The One I Love’ from 2005 album Life in Slow Motion. In moving from his early songs into his post White Ladder songs it’s easy to hear how Gray’s music has developed and found its feet throughout the years.
However, Gray is consistently innovative with his live performance, incorporating use of the loop pedal echoing effect for vocals and guitar riffs. Many times throughout the show he lifts his hands from his guitar or takes a seat at the piano while the instrumentals of a chorus continue as a recording. This brings about an extremely dynamic and layered effect to the performance as a guitar solo or vocal harmonies are incorporated on top of the initial acoustics and vocals.
Throughout the show, Gray experiments a bit with his own music incorporating elements of other songs or adding in impressive guitar solos with effortless ease. ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’ is blended with ‘Into The Mystic’ from Northern Ireland’s finest, Van Morrison. It works incredibly well and is obviously met with a great deal of enthusiasm from his proud audience.
Known for having a catalogue of mostly slower, emotionally driven songs, in an interview with The Irish Independent Gray described how his own daughters aren’t fans of his music because of this very reason. Gray admitted that “They think the songs are dreary – and I suppose in comparison to the upbeat stuff they listen to, they have a point.” In a show jam packed with his slow songs it’s almost a bit of a relief to hear one of his more upbeat songs, the incredibly catchy ‘Back in the World Again’ off Mutineers, his most recent album.
Finally indulging his audience in the eagerly awaited trifecta of White Ladder hits ‘Sail Away’, ‘Babylon’ and ‘This Year’s Love’; some audience members sing while other are completely engrossed in the moment. Couples hold each other a little closer, a mother and daughter hug each other nearby – it’s incredible to behold how prized these hits are within the small audience.
Coming back for a quick encore to wrap up what has been flawless set, Gray and Niamh Farrell duet on ‘Snow in Vegas’. Working through an impressive 22 songs in total, Gray delivered a brilliantly dynamic set that included a songs from the start of his career right through to the current day. While it’s safe to say that Gray will undoubtedly be back touring in Ireland, it’s doubtful he’ll be back in Downpatrick specifically. Soma festival brought a wholly unique event with this show – captivating music in a beautiful venue.