Live Reviews

Macy Gray – Town Hall, Birmingham: Live Review

Macy Gray & California Jet Club take the stage at Birmingham Town Hall…a night that was very special…

I would be the first to admit Macy Gray had fallen a little off my radar, it being, gulp, twenty odd years since I Try had had her everywhere, top ten worldwide in 1999, her colourful back story the delight of the colour supplements. I freely confess I was then smitten, her sandpaper and molasses voice a treat, and I hoovered up her first couple of albums. She has popped back in and out of my awareness in the intervening, primarily via her idiosyncratic take on covers: 2012 saw two such releases with Covered, which does what it says to material from artists as varied as Radiohead and Metallica, to Talking Book, which was just that, a track by track of Stevie Wonders iconic 1972 album, both well worth a punt. More recently, given her oft comparisons with the vocal style of Billie Holiday, 2016’s Stripped showed her jazzier side. And a show stopping Redemption Song. So, an idle moment perusing the local gig guide had me think it was about damn time I caught her live.

Town Hall is the little sister of Symphony Hall, with a decent vibe inside its listed facade. Snucking in towards the halfway mark of eight, the stage was simple, albeit with a big screen at the back, giving a frisson of fear that this might be some bloated ego trip. (It wasn’t.) In that time honoured old show biz staple, the band coming on first and getting stuck in, long before sight of the star, I wondered why this undoubtedly cheesy way of kicking off never became more prevalent in modern music, with Van Morrison perhaps the main proponent these days. I love it, and the California Jet Club turned out to be a potent little combo of keyboards, bass, drums and additional percussion. No guitar. Locking straight into a funky groove, only when they were established did the extravagantly turbaned bandleader, Billy Wes, ahead his bank of keys, announce Miss Macy Gray. Sashaying on in a flouncy and billowing electric blue frock, all grins and waving wildly the scene was set.

Relating To A Psychopath is a challenging song, not least lyrically, but prove to be the perfect opener, full of her familiar stop start phrasing, and the by now compulsory reference of her voice to raspy. Whilst I didn’t necessarily know all of the songs, you know, it so didn’t matter, so solid were the band and so glorious their presentation. If the template was predominantly of funky rock over jazz or r’n’b, hell, could these guys cook, with a special mention for Alex Kiyn, whose bass was never less than chunky, his appearance that of a slightly chunkier and more bemused Scott Gorham, in his long haired prime. Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters came fairly early on, demonstrating that, under all the rifferama, quite how good a song it actually is. In a neat touch, the band belted straight up and into Still, with Wes taking up the vocals to start. Gray took over, but this demonstrated the strong rapport between she and her band, not to say with the audience.

“We’ve come over from Los Angeles ,California, just to play for you sexy people, and I want to hear you scream!!” And, of course, it took three such screams before she was satisfied. Repeatedly asking what day it was, and enjoying the response that got, she had the 2/3 capacity audience in her hands, by now those standing outnumbering the seated. Another cover, Radiohead’s Creep, had the audience singing along and, no, this was not the bowdlerised version and we all truly felt “so fucking special”.

The song ended and Ms. Gray blew kisses and exited right. Surely not the end? Surely not, as the band were straitjacketed back into their tight rhythm. However, first Wes peeled off and then Kiyn, leaving drummer, Tamir Barzilay, and percussionist, name uncertain, a seemingly new addition to the CJC. Now, I’m not a big fan of drum solos, but tonight I found I was, not least as Barzilay was left on his ownsome, thrashing away for a full five minutes. This could catch on!! Eventually, as in all good things must come to an end, on back came his compadres, with exhortations to cheer and call out for the star. And, like a true star, now in a resplendent white, back she came.

By now the mood was effervescent and ready for dancing, two slick songs followed by a naggingly familiar instrumental riff. Before I could stop myself, suddenly I, and the whole room, found myself singing Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, a song I normally abhor. Again, not tonight. Another new song and, clearly drawing down to a close, finally the stuttering rhythms of I Try became recognisable. Trying to fool the audience, the band began it in a spiky and staccato revision that had me questioning the wisdom, but, a verse and a few bars in, the arrangement clicked back into the expected version. Wonderful, the crowd once more gleefully singing along. This now was the end, Ms. Gray peeling off again to let the band play her out.

Except, it wasn’t, a good old fashioned encore arriving, a set piece, the instruments moved forward, and some chairs added to the stage. Barzilay was now strumming an acoustic guitar, seated, as was Kiyn with his bass. Like a good old end of a TV show special, the five were huddled together and around each other, and it was befittingly glorious, not least as costume number three, a blurred black and white check, was now to bedeck Gray’s striking frame. A couple of songs in that format and then back to the day job, Barzilay back behind his kit, the set winding down with Mercy and Sweet Baby, the crowd satiated and exhausted, sent home happy to their beds.

She is in the country for only a few more dates. I would say definitely worth catching, for as good a night out as I can remember. Entitled the Reset Tour, the album of the same name is not yet actually out, perhaps explaining the unfamiliarity of material. That apart, the setlist concentrated, covers apart, on her first two albums, On How Life Is and The Id, the waves of nostalgia palpable. That said, I will be in the front of the queue for the album when it does eventually drop. Here below is the first single, which, I recognise, made an early appearance, without the rap, on stage.

Macy Gray: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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