I mean, you knew that the evening was going to be a belter when you get escorted right across the local casino, drinks and all, into the VIP room with free beer, bubbly and gourmet pizza before the concert has even begun. [Thanks, Andrew 😉 ].
And then, when it did begin, it was just a lot of fun with some great music. Ten songs in the first half, starting with You’re The World To Me and Fugitive before finally getting the audience involved in Be Mine, and bewitching us all into silence (incredible for a South African crowd) with a raw, emotional performance of Alibi. Hospital Food rolled neatly into the catchy Nemesis to end off a tight, professional set by a clearly accomplished band and singer.
Twenty minutes later – beating most of the bar-queuing audience back – he returned with a new drummer (the one and only Craig McClune) and a bang, for the main event, and Please Forgive Me and Babylon got the crowd – and the band – bouncing.
Running on through the album, he remarked on his two favourite songs that “took him back like a time machine to that tiny bedsit in Stoke Newington, N16”: Nightblindness and Silver Lining. And then after those two poignant, introspective numbers during which he seemed strangely distant, it was like a switch was flicked and he back to engaging the now slightly less reluctant audience with the now seemingly obligatory cellphone waving to This Year’s Love: “Come on, I know you’ve all got phones. And I know you’ve all got arms!”.
Sail Away and a really beautiful Say Hello, Wave Goodbye completed the album set and then there was… the encore.
Back on then, and having just given us one Marc Almond number (from the album), he went straight into another song that Soft Cell made famous: Tainted Love. A real poppy, swingy, almost silly version though. It was fun, but it didn’t quite fit. And then he sat at the piano and told us the story of the day in June 2000 that White Ladder and David Gray finally made it into the big time. A tale of a father on chemotherapy, a lucky break of a near headline slot at Glastonbury, and a chance backstage meeting with an apparently bewildered David Bowie, complete with pictures of the whole thing. It was more what I had expected from the whole evening: a bit of background, some anecdotes etc. But this was the only window we got into the story of the album. And then – using the somewhat tenuous Bowie link – the rest of the encore: Life On Mars and Oh! You Pretty Things. And it was great, but it wasn’t David Gray, it was David Bowie, and it wasn’t what the audience had come for. I’m sorry to say that we watched a fair percentage leave during these two songs. Bit disrespectful, but then that’s sadly par for the SA audience: we’ve been here before (more than once).
When you’re playing your biggest album in full, you can’t save your biggest hit for the end of the encore. Still, we thought there would be a rousing repeat of Babylon or something, because why not? But the second Bowie song was segued really awkwardly into the last few (admittedly energetic) bars of Please Forgive Me. But only the last few bars. It was just weird to finish off a concert with 4 cover versions (from three different artists) and then the false ending reprise of one of your songs.
It was still really good, but it was also really odd.
Anyway… overall, an altogether lovely evening and (even before the encore) we’d been treated to a lot of genuinely great music and some amazing vocals. It’s been 16 years since we last saw him here, but if he does come back again, I’ll definitely be there.