How do you solve a problem like White Ladder?
It’s hard to believe that crooner David Gray’s debut album is more than 20 years old, or that it was way back in 1998 that his breakthrough offering White Ladder hit the shelves, though it wouldn’t be until its re-release in 2000 that it would go on to become the fifth best-selling album of the noughties, selling millions upon millions of copies in the process.
So why, and how, could an album being so popular ever be seen as a problem?
David Gray came onto the stage at the quite wonderful Waterfront Hall on Tuesday night, took his seat at his piano and began his set with Birds of the High Arctic, one of the standout songs on his new album, Mutineers. It was a fine sight to see him doing what he does best, fully justifying his nickname ‘Mr Wobbly Head’ as he threw himself into every note of the opener. While it isn’t the liveliest of songs to open a set with, a voice that could only belong to him filled the room, and the seven-piece band accompanying him showcased just why they are there – creating a huge sound that served to prove the credentials of the Waterfront’s acoustics.
However, and this is the afore-mentioned problem, whether it was in jest or not, as soon as the opener reached its finale, and the lights went out on stage, as they would at the end of each song throughout the show, there were shouts of ‘Babylon’ from the crowd. And there continued to be shouts of ‘Babylon’ from the crowd after the vast majority of songs as the night progressed.
See, it is probably safe to say that White Ladder, and the hits that it contains, are the reason that David Gray can almost sell out the Waterfront on a cold Tuesday night in the build up to Christmas, especially considering the price of the none-too-cheap tickets. After all, back in 2003, when I first saw Gray live, he was second on the bill at the V Festival, ahead of Queens of the Stone Age and PJ Harvey, playing second fiddle only to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While he has enjoyed relative success throughout his career, that album will always be the yardstick against which he is measured, and the members of the audience perhaps unfamiliar with his new work seemed, at times, to grow a little impatient as he began his set with seven tracks from Mutineers.
However, nothing should be taken away from these songs. The band that accompany him create a magnificent soundscape as an accompaniment to that voice, and whether sat at the piano or on his feet, guitar in hand, Gray seems to be a rejuvenated performer, confident in the songs that he’s made. And he should be. In the album’s title track, and lively number Back in the World, he has created his finest songs in years. Accompanied by strings, brass, backing singers and a cello, they cast a magnificent shadow created by a simple yet incredibly effective light show that put huge, elaborate lighting systems to shame.
While White Ladder’s My Oh My, and Alibi, from 2005 album Life in Slow Motion, provided fans with familiar songs to sing along to, Nemesis and Gulls from Mutineers sent the show into a drawn-out, dream-like sequence. The room was filled with delicate sounds, with Gray standing at the front of the stage, playing his guitar sporadically and almost whispering into the microphone. It offered him a real opportunity to hold the audience in his hand, and barely a whisper escaped the crowd as he captivated the whole room. Unfortunately, again, someone felt the need to shout ‘Babylon’ as the track finished, and Gray himself explained that the show was “an immersive experience” – which really summed up what was happening on stage. I, and many others, were utterly drawn in by the majesty of the songs, and the band, as they created magnificent soundscapes which he described perfectly as “a dreamlike state”. it goes to show that sometimes less certainly can be more.
The show roared back to life with White Ladder’s This Year’s Love – a song that is as heart-wrenchingly beautiful now as it was all those years ago. It may have only peaked at number 20 in the official chart, but is recognisable to millions thanks to its appearance on the soundtrack of many films and popular TV series Dawson’s Creek – and it signaled the beginning of the ‘popular’ section of the show, with ‘The One I Love’ getting the audience on their feet and singing the words back at the singer.
Back at his piano, Gray then launched into Please Forgive Me, the opening track from White Ladder. And what a transformation this song went through. Although it started calmly, as it is on the album, every person in the Waterfront was on their feet and dancing by the end. The song became a huge, rocking dance number, with lights of every colour illuminating the band as Gray jumped up from his piano and, like a drunken uncle at a wedding, jumping and throwing his arms in the air at the front of the stage as the audience sang his song for him. It was a world away from the image and reputation that Gray has garnered over the years, and it was a real pleasure to see him seemingly enjoying performing so much.
As the band marched off stage to rapturous applause, it would have, admittedly been quite amusing if they didn’t return, and the many, many… many requests for ‘Babylon’ had gone unanswered, but Gray returned to the stage alone, with only his guitar for accompaniment and played a spine-tingling rendition of his most famous song. Again, the audience were on their feet as he led several sing-a-long choruses and satisfied each and every person in the room. The only downside of such an uplifting performance was to see a huge amount of people heading for the exit as soon as it finished. It came across as disrespectful to a performer that had put his all in to the rest of the show, but hey… Nice to avoid the traffic and all that.
The band returned for the encore’s second and final song, ‘Sail Away’, which again had the remaining members of the audience singing every word, and felt like a triumphant finish to what had been quite an excellent show.
It’s hard to see what Gray has to do to create something as popular as White Ladder again – perhaps he never will. It’s unlikely that, at this stage of his career, radio stations are going to snap up his new material in the way they did back then as they are trained to focus on new artists instead of someone who has been making music since 1993 – but Mutineers deserves more recognition than it has received, and Gray has proved himself as a brilliant songwriter who can more than hold his own against the new breed dominating Spotify playlists around the world.
Looking at the show as a whole, you could forgive him for calling this something like ‘The David Gray Experience’ – though that feels far too pretentious for a performer who seems very down to earth. Perhaps it is because he has earned his fame, rather that fast-tracked his way to glory like so many acts do via TV talent shows these days. The new material – the dreamy interlude – and the hit-filled ending were almost like three acts of a play, each with their own merits, and each hugely appealing in their own way.
It’s 10 long years since David Gray played in Belfast, but this show at the Waterfront Hall would, and should, have fans hoping that they don’t have to wait 10 more to see him here again. Dan Williams, GiggingNI.com
PS – Shout out to the couple in front of me who, not only ignored all ‘No Mobile Phone’ notices, but recorded half of the gig, lighting up the seats around them, and then interrupted a good few people asking for help when the phone got dropped behind a seat. The signs are there for a reason. I don’t want to watch the performance through a phone, I’d like to see it on stage. Leave the phone at home next time. Thanks.