THE MUSIC INDUSTRY can be one dim-witted meritocracy. But although a bit slow on the uptake, it can eventually be won over by talent and persistence. Take the strange case of David Gray. The Manchester-born songwriter released three brilliant albums in the mid-Nineties, all of which basically tanked in England and the States. Devastated (and understandably confused) by the lack of attention paid to his work, Gray went into a kind of semi-retirement.
That all changed in 1998, when Gray released White Ladder on his own label, and his first single, "Babylon," became a smash in the Irish club scene. Perhaps owing to Gray's affinity for Van Morrison, the Irish have always cottoned to his brand of passionate folk pop. But White Ladder was something else again: a disc that cut his folk sensibilities with an edgier club vibe. After vaulting to the top of the Irish charts, "Babylon" came belatedly to the attention of English DJs. With an unexpected hit in London's clubland, Gray, who had given up on the idea of playing live, was suddenly faced with screaming crowds of 20,000 or more.
Recorded in Gray's home studio in suburban London, White Ladder is a clear departure for the previously folkish songwriter. While earlier discs were driven by guitar licks and confessional lyrics, White Ladder finds Gray fleshing out his elegant song lines with keyboard fills, samples, and programmed beats. Still the album hardly qualifies as techno; soulful offerings such as "Sail Away" and "Nightblindness" are far more indebted to Van Morrison than to the Chemical Brothers. (In fact, Gray pays tribute to Morrison in the shimmering outro of "Say Hello Wave Goodbye," which is spiced with lines from "Into the Mystic" and "Madame George.") So, too, Gray's talent for heartbreaking ballads is still very much intact, as evidenced by the plangent lament of "We're Not Right" and "This Year's Love."
With White Ladder's U.K. success, the album was reissued in the States, where Gray now enjoys enough radio airplay to support a national tour. Thirty-year-old Gray, who once enjoyed what one would be generous to describe as a cult following in the U.S., now routinely sells out venues. At a recent show in Boston, about 600 fans were packed in front of the stage, with another hundred clamoring outside.
And for good reason. Gray's live show is a thing of wonder. Gone is the era of playing solo gigs with just a guitar. These days, he is joined onstage by his longtime collaborator, the drummer Clune, as well as a new bassist and keyboardist. The result is a rich, melodic swirl that swings from emotive balladry to raucous improvisation in the space of a single refrain. Gray's voice is a rich baritone that sounds, if anything, stronger in concert, where he feels welcome to growl out lyrics and offer piercingly beautiful falsetto turns.
These latest shows have tended to focus on the new material while integrating a handful of songs from his overlooked previous collections and a number of unexpected covers. In Boston, he offered a funkified rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" that saw him pounding on the keyboard he had commandeered and yowling at Clune's absurdly ornate drum runs. A disco ball swirled overhead all the while, throwing specks of light onto Gray's face, which was curled in a manic grin. You couldn't help but get the impression that David Gray is, at long last, having fun. A little recognition will do that to you.