Live review: David Gray, Union Chapel, Islington, London – 27th February 2023

Ruth Medjber @ruthlessimagery

Who wouldn’t want the chance to see a noughties blockbuster artist perform an album inspired by three medieval monks living on a remote island west of Kerry? To be honest I haven’t paid David Gray much attention since listening to ‘White Ladder’ a lot when it first came out, and he is “not our everyday Americana artist” as our Editor said when the review request came in.

Seating at the Union Chapel is unreserved so I was pleased to be told on arrival (slightly late) that I would be in the VIP area, only to find that this was at the back of the gallery upstairs. Too far for decent photos, but thankfully there was a professional photographer on hand.

This sold-out concert was the first of six live performances of the 2021 album ‘Skellig’, and with his six-piece band Gray performed every song interspersed with a couple of songs from the 2014 ‘Mutineers’ that were a good fit, like ‘Gulls’. This was followed by some songs from earlier albums but nothing from ‘White Ladder’.

The performance opened with the scene-setting title song from ‘Skellig’. You could half-imagine it being sung by some monks and the lyrics give glimpses of the challenges they faced  – “I’m gonna cut that stairway, yeah with my own bare hands, up that high rock plateau”. You could probably do a PhD on an analysis of the lyrics of the songs on this album, so I’ll pass on that and concentrate on the musical highlights.

Ruth Medjber @ruthlessimagery

It was a very accomplished performance and in some ways more compelling than the studio recording. Listening to these sombre songs on the album I found my attention drifting, but live I was captivated by every subtle twist and turn. I was even fascinated by the lyric repetition on ‘Spiral Arms’, where the title phrase was sung about 25 times to great effect.

Occasionally Gray was the only voice, but mostly he was accompanied by some or all of the six other band members, and indeed they are described in the publicity blurb as “The Skellig choir.” Caroline Dale, David Kitt and Rob Malone are long-standing members of his live band and the other three are Niamh Farrell, Mossy Nolan, and Ben de Vries. Gray played guitar and piano, and between them the other members of the band played guitars, double bass, bass guitar, keyboards, piano, cello and what looked like a small harmonium. There was also a percussionist, and often other band members would add to the rhythm by tapping out drum patterns on their acoustic instruments. Unfortunately, an audience member near me also felt the need to add percussion by tapping on the wooden pew we were sitting on (the venue is a working church).

Ruth Medjber @ruthlessimagery

The chat between songs was fairly brief, but for the finale, the 2022 single ‘The Arc’, Gray gave a heartfelt speech about his perspective on environmental concerns, saying that, “Unless we can find a way to cherish the beauty of this earth, there is no future… and it has to come from the heart.” A moving end to a great show.

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