Rising star Macy Gray, along with her excellent band, blew into a packed House of Blues like a Santa Ana windstorm and proceeded to eclipse even her most positive advance notices with a superbly balanced and highly entertaining show that confirmed her place atop the list of the year’s pop newcomers.
The extra-expressive 29-year-old Ohio native held nothing back during the hourlong program, throwing herself into each of her smoldering songs, which told enthralling tales of life and love as seen through the eyes of this classically trained pianist, former USC film student and mother of three.
Gray brings an impressive package of natural ability and formal training, a pleasing onstage personality, and a refreshingly modern approach to tried-and-true styles — a sure-fire combination that promises increased visibility for the singer in the New Year.
Dressed in a cozy green outfit, the energetic and unpredictable Gray opened the show with the breezy “Why Didn’t You Call Me” and the Bob Marley-influenced “Do Something,” two of the best tracks on her oustanding debut album “On How Life Is” (Clean Slate/Epic).
“We’ve got no worries tonight, baby,” she told the rapt listeners, who jammed the club’s floor, then backing up her words with a winning presentation that put to shame the under-ambitious inclinations of most of her R&B contemporaries.
Gray’s raspy vocal style is an original, Jessica Rabbit-like pairing of sex appeal and animated squawk that adds real character to her music. During crowd fave “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak,” Gray sang of “feel(ing) like an X-rated movie star” as she quickly moved her hands up and down her microphone stand in a most suggestive way.
The body-moving music — performed by an adventurous 11-piece group that included three horn players, a keyboardist, a percussionist, a DJ and two backup singers — was enriched with vibrant R&B, hip-hop, classic soul, reggae and rock flavors.
The star of the band was guitarist Arik Marshall, briefly a member of Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose “Purple Rain”-like solo during the ballad “Still” was one of the evening’s highlights. He later paid tribute to Jimi Hendrix by playing a solo with his teeth. The show ended with “Que Sera, Sera,” which was given a holiday spin, followed by the mind-tripping “The Letter.”
Macy Gray performs on New Year’s Eve at the Santa Monica Pier.