It has been a long time since Macy Gray first broke onto the scene with her own brand of pop and soulful funk, and I confess since her debut album my radar has been pointing in the opposite direction. Still the power and quality of those early songs are more than a pull to bring me to Birmingham’s Town Hall on a wet February night.
Rothwell is support; an up and coming singer, guitarist and songwriter from Bristol via Leeds. The Town Hall has not yet started to fill up, so many will have missed this stunning set. Thankfully there is enough up at the front to make her feel welcome and we soon realise her powerful contralto voice is big enough to fill the chasm before her – the voice that emanates from her slim frame is the last thing I expected to hear. Rothwell (real name Ella Rothwell) accompanies herself on acoustic guitar and delights the crowd with a handful of original songs to promote her new single ‘Mouthful of Words’. Lyrically there is little on offer other than tales of unrequited love, failure to commit emotionally and troubled relationships, but then most pop songs deal in exactly these subjects, so I can’t be overly critical – she is more in the mould of Adele than Ani Defranco. Rothwell’s natural sense of humour shown in between songs is not obvious in her writing, and even ‘Before I Sleep’, a song she introduces as more ‘happy’ than the last, is not actually that joyful at all.
There are signs of better things to come as her newest track ‘Too Scared to Fall’ is more lyrically sharp and melodically and rhythmically clever than the rest. Although when she softly picks at her guitar strings, I would have wished for more dynamics with the occasional big thwacked chords; she seems to leave her voice to carry out the big knock out punches.
Following an extended intermission in which the audience become restless with the delayed start and begin slow hand-clapping, the stage blacks out and Macy’s band (complete with flashing lights on their ties) walk out into the darkness. A slightly underwhelming light show and overcomplicated stage entrance, when they could have simply just walked on stage in the light. Anyway Macy soon follows and grooves straight into ‘Why Didn’t You Call Me?’ and then ‘Do Something’ from her debut album. I am quickly thinking she will have performed all the songs I know in the first ten minutes and soon I will be lost. But this does not matter as the quality of the songs throughout is remarkable – I immediately make mental notes of the albums I need to now catch up on.
There is a perceptible lack of confidence during these early songs however, and I turn from my position by the stage to look into the largely empty Town Hall (all of the stalls seating has been removed to create an expansive dance floor and there is probably only 100 people in the space). Indeed Macy’s bass player invites those in the balcony to fill the space in front of the stage, but few do (the majority of the audience, like me are mid-40’s and over, and if we get a chair we don’t let it go!).
Macy herself seems initially subdued and unhappy by the clear lack of support (playing to a small crowd in a big venue is very difficult), but by the end of the first set she seems to warm to the audience and the small group by the stage try their best to make up for the yawning spaces behind them.
There are three sets tonight (including the encore songs), broken up with three costume changes for Macy and a new and more sparkly dress and feather boa each time. During the first costume change everyone but the drummer leaves the stage and we are treated to an immaculate drum solo from an artist who understands dynamics and groove. I am not a big fan of any instrument soloing (the band should just play the songs!), but this is very, very special.
Vocally Macy is Macy. You either love her gravelly style or you don’t, but you can’t fault the performance. She is spot on technically and emotionally throughout. The band funk up the more soulful tracks and for me this is because the focus is the rhythm section. The keyboards and particularly the guitarist seem well back in the mix. When Macy covers Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ and I wait for the wailing feedback soaked guitar entry at the chorus, I am greeted by the most feeble distorted guitar I have ever heard – maybe this is a musical arrangement decision but it sounded very weak. A shame; because Macy’s vocal part is on a par with Thom Yorke’s.
Highlights for me, are tracks I had not heard before, but felt like they were old favourites: ‘Glad You’re Here’, ‘Beauty in the World’ and ‘Life Is Beautiful’. Also the build up to the encore ‘I Try’ is spectacular as Macy duets with each member of the band in turn, ending with the drummer for the opening verse to ‘I Try’, when the band join in and everyone starts to sing along. And sing we have to in the chorus as Macy directs her microphone to us. Jokes have been made about artists that do this (i.e. “I came here to listen to you sing Macy, I can listen to myself sing in the bath at home for nothing”), but it actually sounds stunning – maybe because it is just the small crowd at the stage belting out the words as if their lives depended on it.
There is no doubt that Ms. Gray is still a class performer, and she is much, much more colourful than her name suggests. I only wish she had been playing in a venue more suited to the size of the audience – it would have made for an intimate and more powerful experience.
1 Why Didn’t You Call Me?
2 Do Something
4 Bang Bang
5 Glad You’re Here
6 Sweet Baby
7 A Moment to Myself
8 Relating to a Psychopath
9 Creep (Radiohead cover)
11 Sexual Revolution / Do Ya Think I’m Sexy
12 Beauty in the World
14 The Way
15 Life Is Beautiful
16 I Try / Three Little Birds
17 The Letter
Review: Alan Neilson
Photographs: Katja Ogrin