David Gray & Afro Celt Sound System
Galway, 11 July '99
It was with a certain amount of trepidation that CLUAS shuffled its feet into the "...biggest tent in Europe..." in Fisheries Field, Galway, for the closing night of the curiously-named Big Beat festival. What lay ahead were three unknown quantities for this reporter - Paddy Casey, busily making a big name for himself in Dublin; the Afro Celt Sound System, a new-age collision of Irish and Western African music culture and honorary Irish Welshman, David Gray. Unfortunately, having missed the Paddy Casey set, CLUAS cannot substantiate the rumour that having the ex-busking Dubliner on the same bill as David Gray is tantamount to having Abba-esque supporting Abba.
The Afro Celt Sound System burst on stage with a zeal which immediately grabbed the audience. Having cut their live teeth at such festivals as WOMAD in London, their set pulsated and heaved. The sheer audacity of having the likes of vocalist Iarla O'Lionard (recent support slot to Nick Cave) on stage with three African percussionists, an Uilieann pipe and drum machine was breath-taking. Masamba Diop's masterful talking drum created an exotic pulse - the gig sounded like a party at some global crossroads..... At various stages, an African dancer would appear at the wing and sweep across the stage like some whirling dervish, whipping the audience into a frenzy. This gig was a revelation.
After the reception that the Afro Celt Sound System received, I felt that David Gray would have been better off skulking back to his hotel to live and fight another day... But CLUAS had not gauged the level of devotion afforded to the affable Taff. The roar that greeted the arrival of the main man and his two-piece band almost blew the flaps off the tent (!)- indeed, he himself seemed taken aback himself by the noise generated. The crowd sang his lyrics back to him with vigour and the old clich?about "..doing no wrong.." was appropriate, even in the face of a few technical problems and out-of-tune guitars.
Yet what of the music? I had been blissfully unaware of Gray's existence until his single, This Year's Love, became an FM favourite. A simple tune; pleasant lyric but unremarkable voice. As a songwriter, he is an amalgam of Bob Dylan (without the lyrics), Van Morrison (without the mysticism) and Elliot Smith (without the melodies)....
Yet he has a stage presence and relaxed manner which belies his failings. He sings forcefully, his head lolling on his shoulders like those toy dogs you often see in the back window of a car. When he begins to lose the audience with his mellower, more subdued, tunes, he can instantly gather them back into the palm of his hand with a huge, sing-along chorus complete with "na na na" or "woo hoo" s. By the end of his third encore, and with the audience still bellowing for more, I began to see the guy's appeal. But would I listen to his records? Hmmm. His music does not grab me. I fail to see why it is so special but, yet, I can't take away from what was a pretty good gig. Maybe the secret is in his surname; he's a little bit Gray for me.....