On the afternoon of the second of his two recent live shows at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, David Gray encountered a couple of long-time fans who’d travelled up from the sticks for the occasion. Despite its billing as a full performance of his most recent elpee, ‘Skellig’, the pair had a request of him: ‘Make sure to play some of the classics tonight, won’t you?’. A reference, one might think, to the singles that catapulted him out of the sinking twenty years ago: ‘Babylon’, ‘Please Forgive Me’, ‘Sail Away’ and ‘This Year’s Love’. Or to those cuts with which, on the late-night television series, No Disco, David made his first tentative connections with Irish audiences: ‘Shine’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘What Are You?’. Or perhaps ‘The One I Love’, ‘Be Mine’ or ‘The Other Side’? Do ‘Late Night Radio’, ‘Falling Free’ and ‘Sell Sell Sell’ qualify? Is the ‘Skellig’ elpee itself eligible? Either way, theres a lot to unpack around the matter of David Gray and what might adequately constitute ‘the classics’.
David’s relationship with Ireland has been handsomely documented: compromised though I am, Donal Scannell’s television documentary, ‘Ireland’s Greatest Hit’, is probably the best spot from which to start to unravel that story. For anoraks, a long piece here deals specifically with his earliest shows in Dublin and Cork, as well as his relationship with No Disco, much of which, like all history, is contestable. What we can say with certainty is that close to a point of fracture in his fledgling career, David found succour and shelter in Ireland and Ireland found succour and shelter in him. Thirty years later, it’s a connection that endures but, as with all matters of the heart, one that requires regular investment. And no more so, as a great writer so fundamentally examines the purpose of his work, than on his last two albums.
The Skellig Islands are located ten miles off the south-west coast of Kerry, often impossible to access and utterly exposed to the vagaries of the wild Atlantic. The majesty of the islands has long been espoused: a protected site, it’s as renowned for its wildlife and natural history as it is for the monks who inhabited it in their distinctive beehive-shaped stone huts as far back as the 6th century. And although much of David’s previous work is rooted in themes of spirituality and nature – and the sweet-spot where one meets the other – never before has he shaped a record so profoundly around them both. So, to all intents, ‘Skellig’ is a concept album that, when it isn’t deferring to old liturgical singing styles, its flush with lyrical allusions to the natural world and to man’s place in that world. The birds and the beehives, meditation and prayer: it’s a complicated brew.
The live ‘Skellig’ shows – only six in all, two of them in Dublin – were always going to challenge David and even his most ardent followers. It’s not as if the venue – home to Ireland’s National Symphony Orchestra – with its magnificent chandelier, stained glass windows and renowned pipe organ, isn’t suited to high-octane, fully-amplified wigging-out: Sinéad O’Connor proved that much during a spectacular appearance there in 2014. At a specially convened congress in June, 2019, Dave Couse and Fergal Bunbury administered the last rites to their band, A House, and funted their 1991 elpee, ‘I Am the Greatest’, into oblivion. Regular visitors to this site will know that Microdisney chose the NCH in which to bury a series of ceremonial hatchets back in 2018, the irony of which wasn’t lost on the full house that congregated there on the night.
No, the primary difficulty with ‘Skellig’ is that, like David’s 2015 album, ‘Mutineers’, it’s an overly reflective and passive record that never rises above the calm or once breaks sweat. Some of it is so soft that its barely actually there at all. David’s foot still taps frenzily as he plays but these cuts are aimed at the soul, traditionally far more difficult to trigger than the body.
I last saw David perform live in May, 2022, when he played a series of sold-out shows at the old Point Depot, rolling out the hits – the classics – and rolling back the decades to perform the ‘White Ladder’ elpee on the occasion of its pandemic-delayed twentieth birthday. That record is still one of the most enigmatic releases in the history of popular Irish entertainment and, by way of celebrating it, David re-assembled a stellar band of familiar faces, around which he made like a re-born Christ, replete in a white suit, for the guts of two hours over three consecutive nights.
As Ireland was starting to tentatively re-emerge in those nervous few months after its second Covid Christmas, those shows bubbled up on the remarkable intercourse between stage and stalls that’s long under-laid David’s appeal here. An old friend of mine described that series to me as ‘like a warm hug’, the concerts climaxing in a welter of loops and bleeps, segueing out of back-to-back Bowie covers and into a prolonged reprise of ‘Please Forgive Me’. One might have been forgiven for thinking we were back in the same venue during the day-glo years in the mid-noughties when Scooter would stage a yearly crash-course for Dublin’s ravers.
The ‘Skellig’ shows couldn’t be further removed from that kind of carry-on and, as if to hammer that point home, David spends the accompanying shows seated throughout, either behind a Steinway or a battery of acoustic guitars. Around him, he’s backed by six of the seven singers and musicians – The Skellig Choir – who recorded the elpee with him in Edwyn Collins’s studio in Helmsdale, forty miles from John O’Groats, in 2021. Pulled from a wide and varied cross-section of local schools – folk, trad, old school rock, lo-fi indie – among their number are the guitarist and singer, David Kitt, David’s long-time bassist Rob Malone and producer Ben de Vries, whose father, Marius, produced David’s 2005 album, ‘Life In Slow Motion’.
All of them regularly come to the mics together to replicate the group vocal sound that dominates ‘Skellig’ but there’s no raw power in the numbers here. Like the sandstone and slate that’s inspired the material, this is spartan, primal and magical terrain, even at its most pulsing.
No more so than on ‘Laughing Gas’ and ‘All That We Wanted And More’, two of the stand-outs from the record that feature David barely touching the piano in a manner one might associate with the great late-night moodsters like Glasgow’s Blue Nile or the American band, Spain. Some of whose material is so delicate that it sounds forever on the point of collapsing inward on itself.
References to man’s experience inside and outside the natural world dominate the work and, by way of explanation, David recalls a life-affirming fishing trip he took as a young boy. Born in Manchester in 1968, his family re-located to the South Wales village of Solva from where, one morning, he was taken out to sea for the first time by a neighbouring family of fishermen. It was out around the island of Skoma, off the Pembrokeshire coast that David, exposed for the first time to the colonies, confusions, commotions and chatterings maybe found a place in which he was, if not wholly comfortable, then certainly more certain of himself. Six months after his arrival in rural Wales, the outsider had briefly glimpsed an inside, and it looked and sounded spectacular. Fifteen years later, carried further out to sea, David fell into a similar kind of sanctuary in a couple of small venues in Dublin and Cork. It’s been a long, long way from there to here but the boat keeps moving.
As promised, he performs ‘Skellig’ in its entirety here, as well as another song written for that elpee but that didn’t make the cut, ‘Dancing With Both Feet Off the Ground’. And he gives an outing to ‘The Arc’, which appeared on an album produced and compiled last year by Talvin Singh in support of a campaign for the preservation of the curlew, one of those bird species most at risk in an increasingly self-destructive world. ‘Gulls’, the only cut from ‘Mutineers’ to feature, is perfectly at home in such company.
Pre-ambling ‘No False Gods’, David introduces us to the work of Nan Shepherd, the Scottish writer whose poem, ‘Real Presence’ – ‘we are love’s body or we are undone’ – he borrows for one of the key payoffs on ‘Skellig’. Much of Shepherd’s work was first published in the 1920s and 1930s, re-issued decades later and, like much of David’s recent output, is rooted in the quasi-spiritual experiences inside and around the natural world. Later, in recalling the death of a close friend, and a long walk across the Norfolk Broads with her before she died, he’s channelling a similar set of experiences.
In front of a thousand-strong audience, and using relatively little by way of amplification, it’s impossible for David to hide on the wide stage. He’s always been able to win his own ball anyway and, pretty quickly, looks like he’s enjoying the potential of the hall itself: once the night settles and the players get to the pitch, the show rises up in the swell. Twenty-five years ago, I sat in the same venue as Elvis Costello returned for an encore after an astonishing, stripped-back live show, had the PA turned off and bounced his voice off of the walls in a terrific display of prowess and vocal control. Tonight David enjoys a similar joust with the venue – it’s easy to forget how good a singer he is – knowing, like all the great players instinctively do, when to give and, more importantly, when to go.
The decades have been kind to David, and obviously far kinder than they’ve been to many of us who’ve fetched up to see him once again tonight, back in the ornate hall for the first time since a trio of solo shows in 2017. He looks as young now and sounds as strident and urgent as he did when we first broke bread together in the resident’s bar in the Imperial Hotel after his performance at The Triskel Arts Centre in Cork in 1994. There’s an admirable and enviable energy to him too that never seems to dissipate and, with a tour in the offing to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the release of the record that began all of this, ‘A Century Ends’, one expects to see him back again around these parts – if not necessarily this venue – before too long. There’s loose talk too about the next album, and the one after that.
From the stalls, meanwhile, a couple of familiar voices appeal, once more, for ‘the classics. ‘But they’re all classics, aren’t they?’, David asks from the front of the stage. ‘That’s my point’. Before the band wraps up the night with a moderate concession, a version of ‘This Year’s Love’ performed in formation and with no frills. For the good times and for always.
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