– AIMSEL L. PONTI

It’s been sometime since musician David Gray has graced Portland audiences with his presence. His sold-out show Wednesday at Merrill Auditorium was a loud-and-clear reminder of why he has such devoted fans here.

Gray was backed by a band that was newly assembled in 2007 and includes accomplished guitarist Neill MacColl.

The show started on an enthralling note with “Fugitive,” from last year’s “Draw the Line” album, and the first image of Gray was larger than life thanks to the clever use of a backlit white scrim.

With the audience (myself included) reeling in that blissful state of knowing that a memorable night had just begun, the scrim was dropped in dramatic fashion and there stood David Gray, in a spiffy brown suit with his acoustic guitar singing his heart out.

The sound was pristine, the crowd was enraptured and our journey to Gray’s higher ground was further propelled by “Sail Away,” from “White Ladder,” the album that’s kept fans mesmerized for over 10 years; although it was his fourth record, it was the first introduction to his music for many now-fervent fans. I might add that MacColl’s slide guitar during the song did not go unnoticed.

In fact, the last thing that Gray wants to do in his live performances is to replicate his studio recordings, so there was always a new angle, arrangement or tempo to set each song apart. Gray switched back and forth between being front-and-center with his guitar to sitting at the piano, where he played songs like “Kathleen” and the emotionally effusive “Slow Motion.”

Another moment of live perfection came in the form of “Be Mine,” the smile-inducing foray into unfettered adoration. “Winter, summer, day or night, centigrade or Fahrenheit, baby till your heart belongs to me, be mine, be mine!” Rest assured there was no shortage of back-up vocalists on that one.

OK, so here’s the part where I mention my only criticism, because I would hope by now you’ve picked up on the fact that this was a truly fantastic show. The only song that didn’t quite work for me was the slowed-down version of “Babylon.”

But Gray had me back in the palm of his hand with the very next one, “Everytime,” from the 1996 “Sell, Sell, Sell” album. Between MacColl’s harmonica, Keith Prior’s drums and Gray’s lyrics, the song took on a life all its own. “There’s nightingales calling, shooting stars falling like jewels in the rain.” The audience response was huge, and it didn’t let up when Gray encouraged dancing and clapping as he dived headfirst into the anthemic “Please Forgive Me.” I took a look around and don’t think a single person remained seated for this one.

The house lights were raised for the line “I’ve got half a mind to scream out loud,” and we did just that as Gray and his band brought the song to a scorch-the-earth crescendo.

For the first of three encore songs, it was just Gray on piano and Rob Malone on stand-up bass for the heart-splitting “This Year’s Love.” It’s been 10 years since I first heard that song, and I’ll say two things about it: It still gets me every time and the line “Won’t you kiss me on that midnight street, sweep me off my feet, singing ain’t this life so sweet” still holds up as one of the most salient pleas ever documented in song.

The intensity didn’t let up as Gray performed what I’m now certain is my favorite song from “Draw the Line,” and that would be “Nemesis,” the dark and stormy self-crucifying confessional. “I’m the thoughts you’re too ashamed to ever share and I am the smell of it you’re trying to wash out of your hair,” sang Gray in what was the show’s laying-it-all-bare-with-no-looking-back moment. It was stunning.

And the show wasn’t quite over. David Gray left us on our feet and singing along to “The One I Love,” the pop prize from “Life in Slow Motion.” “Won’t you take my hand darling, on that old dance floor. We can twist and shout, do the turtle dove, you’re the one I love.”

Let me summarize in the best way I know how just how much I loved this show. It didn’t even occur to me to wonder about the Red Sox–Yankees game until I was out on Myrtle Street. Enough said.

Aimsel Ponti is a Portland freelance writer. Contact her at:

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