Before I launch into details about tonight's David Gray show at Summerfest, I must gush about the venue itself. London-based singer-songwriter Gray took the BMO Harris Pavilion two minutes before his scheduled 9:45 p.m. time-slot and I was already completely smitten with the pavilion. I would become completely smitten with Gray later, but first, more about the space.
The BMO stage, new to the Big Gig grounds this year, is my new favorite outdoor concert venue. It's a mini Marcus Amphitheater with access to a full bar (JoJo's Martini Lounge) and thanks to its proximity to the lake, even on a 100-degree day, offers a refreshing breeze blowing off the lake. Plus, the bleacher seats have backs to them and are free. "Real" seats are also available for a cost.
We checked out both the bleacher seats and the reserved "blue" seats and realized there really isn't a problematic location in the house. Even from the last few rows of the bleachers, the on-stage action is visible and it's amplified by the large screens as well.
But enough about the venue, back to David.
I saw the English singer-songwriter a few years ago at The Riverside and wondered if he would deliver as equally an intimate-feeling, passionate and all-around impressive performance at the Big Gig on such a hot and steamy evening. Once again, Gray proved himself to be one of the most sincere, talented and emotionally-accessible performers out there.
Take "Lately," for example, which was his fifth song in the set. The human-to-human delivery of the song â€“ particularly with the line "Lately I've been way down" â€“ rings true to anyone and everyone who has been there. In a culture of snark and irony, Gray brings unashamed, unguarded, Van Morrison-esque emotion into the mix.
Gray's intensity was further punctuated by the almost full orange moon, Â almost directly above his head for the first few tunes, including fan favorite, "Sail Away," a rocking version of "Fugitive" and then two songs he referred to as "a bit of a blast from the past": "Late Night Radio" and "Faster, Sooner."
Gray also ripped through "Silver Lining," "Lately," "You're The World To Me," "Nemesis," many couple's theme song "This Year's Love was Meant To Last," "Kathleen," "My Oh My" and an interesting cover of "Money," most famously covered by The Beatles mashed up with "Pressure Drop" by The Maytals.
Gray went on to play "Draw The Line" and a sing-a-long encore of, no surprise here, "Babylon."
The band was tight, with little on stage communication, but clearly in sync. Gray was gracious, thanking the audience often and giving accolades to Summerfest for offering such a diverse music experience. He also gently questioned the venue, too, pointing out that both Iron Maiden on the Marcus Amphitheater stage and Ziggy Marley on the Miller Lite Stage were wafting into our sound range.
But most of the time, Gray was eyes closed and, often, arms wide open, half-smiling and sweating in his long-sleeved shirt and vest. (Band members were wearing suits!)
In 1993, Gray released his first album, "A Century Ends." He spent the first six years of his career building a small but dedicated fan base that was mostly in the U.K. â€“ where he remains extremely popular today.
In 1998, he released his fourth record, "White Ladder," on his private label, IHT records. The album was self-financed and recorded in his apartment. It was later rereleased on ATO Records in 2000, and this time, "White Ladder" became Gray's breakthrough album which contained huge hits, "Please Forgive Me," "Babylon," "This Year's Love" and "Sail Away."
Following the success of "White Ladder," two compilation albums of his earlier material were released, followed by "A New Day At Midnight," "Life In Slow Motion," "Draw the Line" and his most recent album, "Foundling," a double album featuring 11 new songs and eight previously unreleased older tunes that was released in 2010.
Currently, Gray is in the early stage of making a new album that does not have a release date yet.
The 44-year-old Gray was born in England, but spent most of his childhood living in Wales. Today, he lives in London with his wife, Olivia, and their two daughters.
Apparently, Gray is part Vulcan, too. "Live long and prosper," he said toward the end of the show.
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