NEW YORK It was billed simply as a private performance, but for the industry-only audience assembled at Joe's Pub in New York City on Friday night, it was a coming-out party for singer/songwriter David Gray.
On the strength of the single "Babylon," Gray's 1998 album, White Ladder, has steadily climbed into Billboard's top 40, yielding the Dave Matthews signee massive success in the U.K. and his first gold record Stateside. And if the assemblage of label heavyweights, including newly christened BMG North American President and CEO Robert Jamieson, have their way, the long-struggling Brit will continue his ascent.
Gray took the small stage alone, sporting jeans and a crisp denim shirt and smiling as he sat before a grand piano. He began his 14-song set with "Please Forgive Me," closing his eyes, shaking his head and banging out the sparse chords like Ray Charles on speed. "Mighty Long Time" spoke to his solo return to the stage, unaccompanied by the drum and bass flourishes that punctuate White Ladder.
"This is like the pub shows I used to play years ago," Gray joked while strapping on an acoustic guitar, "but with people."
Gray seemed rushed as he performed standouts "White Ladder," "My Oh My" and "Sail Away," but found a second to address the uniqueness of the solo acoustic setting.
"I'm taking tonight as an opportunity to play things I don't get to play very often or that in fact I haven't played at all," he said following a tender performance of the new ballad "All the Love," before launching into "Caroline."
It wasn't until the set closer that Gray seemed to hit his stride.
"When I wrote this song I did like it, but I didn't know what it held in store for me."
And with the opening strains of "Babylon," Gray opened his dark eyes, settled his head on his shoulders and searched the stage lights. "Let go of your heart/ Let go of your head/ And feel it now," he sang.
But it was during his encore that Gray truly seemed to heed "Babylon's" advice. Grinning as he quickly relearned the song ("Christ, I should've worked out the chords … bullocks!"), Gray began quietly strumming Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia."
In the silence of Joe's Pub, with the subway rumbling far below, Gray delivered the lyrics in hushed tones: "So will you receive me brother with your faithless kiss/ Or will we leave each other alone like this?"
The question hung for a moment over the heads of label bigwigs and critics alike, left to wonder whether or not everything had changed for David Gray.