David Gray isn’t the kind of guy who writes songs that inspire raised-fist shouts of “right on.” Nor is he the sort who makes music suited to be played when two lovers woo. Instead, the Irish-bred singer-songwriter conjures up a character, crafts a melodic setting and sits back to allow listeners to connect the dots — a modus operandi that works beautifully on his albums but often falls short when it comes to connecting with a live aud.
Gray’s steadfast subtlety was in full effect when he took the stage at Radio City Music Hall — the largest venue he’s headlined in Gotham — on Thursday night. And while true believers in attendance were clearly enraptured, there was a palpable disconnect separating the singer from much of the house.
That might’ve had something to do with Gray’s insistence on exploring virtually every corner of his recently released “Life in Slow Motion” album, a disc on which he trades brooding intimacy for orchestral sweep. In point of fact, that evolution has been good for Gray; songs like the opening “Nos Da Cariad” and the hazy “Alibi” carry a quiet urgency that hold up well — thanks in part to the interplay between (multiple) keyboards and Caroline Dale’s electric cello.
Pacing, however, could’ve been much better. Having roused the stragglers with a robust version of “The One I Love” — perhaps the most buoyant death song this side of Richard Thompson’s catalog — Gray settled into the more mordant groove of “Hospital Food.” Like the majority of the selections he and his band offered, the latter song seemed to necessitate quiet rumination — a reaction that seemed to perplex Gray.
He peppered the two-hour perf with interjections — some clearly jovial, others not so — about the stillness in the seats. Disenchanted as he may have been, Gray didn’t coast through the perf. In fine voice, he gave songs like “Ain’t No Love” and the older “Sail Away” intense readings that went a long way toward melting the ice.
The only half-hearted performance, in fact, was reserved for “Babylon” — Gray’s best-known song, and one that he’s made no secret of wanting to retire. Pulling that punch during the final stages of the encore wasn’t a wise move, but it didn’t diminish the gentle glow of the set proper.