London Shepherd’s Bush Empire

Shepherd's Bush loved him. I was the one asleep in the corner.

[a]David Gray[/a]’s Cinderella story recently bloomed into the happy-ever-after ending of platinum sales in Britain and Ireland after years of critical and commercial indifference. It’s a great yarn which starry-eyed marketing men will pass on to rapt grandchildren for generations to come and only a churlish bounder would resent the affable Welshman his late-blooming success. You can’t argue with almost half-a-million sales, but have they made Gray‘s music any better or worse?

The atmosphere in the Empire is charged, the audience rammed with adoring Dave-o-philes who chant every lyric and greet each song like the unexpected arrival of Father Christmas six months early. Carrying huge sacks of money and drugs. Bloody hell.

So what’s the big deal? OK, ‘My Oh My’ is a huggable toe-tapper, ‘This Year’s Love’ a tear-jerking piano gem. And ‘White Ladder’ sounds uncannily like Duran Duran‘s ‘Rio’ to these Philistine ears. Pleasant neo-folk wallpaper, but damnably difficult to actually get excited over, with scant trace of real lust or wonder or pain. Indeed, most of Gray‘s emotions feel generalised and smoothed down into palatable, pastel-shaded, universally bland sentiments: hollow escapist yearning on ‘Sail Away’, grief without tears on ‘Nightblindness’, designer desolation, light without heat. And this, surely, has been crucial to his success.

Dave‘s a fairly static performer aside from furiously wobbling his head from side to side like a demented [I]Thunderbirds [/I]puppet throughout every tune. If the intended effect is to suggest that here is a shamanic sorcerer buffeted by the elemental passions of his music, he will need something a tad more potent than the Babybird-style confessional ditty ‘Please Forgive Me’ or the Bluebells-esque singalong anthem ‘Babylon’ to make it convincing.

If there are problems here, then, they are a by-product of Gray‘s songwriting rather than this finely-honed minimalist performance. Like how the mid-set clutch of solo acoustic archive tunes such as ‘Shine’ and ‘Twilight’ completely confirms why these listless strums fell flat first time around. Or, perhaps, the way Dave‘s voice falls too easily into that mannered, manicured, Americanised rasp which can sound painfully trite and self-satisfied – kind of Hothouse Flowers meets Van Morrison. It’s no great surprise that Irish record-buyers have taken to these rambling word waterfalls. Racist generalisation? Go listen to The Corrs and get back to me.

Warm, fuzzy and oozing touchy-feely [I]Ally McBeal [/I]sentiment, [a]David Gray[/a] is the acceptable face of compassionate conservatism in rock. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. Shepherd’s Bush loved him. I was the one asleep in the corner.