Entering the newly renovated Hamer Hall on Friday evening, you could overhear two fans talking: “I hope she’s not off her head like last time.”
Looking around the sea of mostly suited and dressed-up middle-aged Melburnians, plus a speckling of little ones being treated to an ‘age-appropriate’ concert, it would probably be best if Gray’s performance tonight wasn’t like last time.
With no support act to warm the crowd, the house lights go down and the crowd claps stiffly.
Unfortunately the lights dimmed way before the band managed to get themselves assembled onstage, resulting in applause fizzling as the musicians fumbled in the dark as 2,000 people shifted uncomfortably in their seats, enduring a long, terrible silence.
The audience was jolted into some form of life again once a crazy-haired silhouette ambled onstage, kicking off the music with ‘Kissed It’, an upbeat (if not slightly daggy) rock track off The Sellout. Gray’s trademark raspy wheeze, although wonderfully unique on record, demanded some real adjustments from the listener of her live show. The lyrics were indistinguishable beneath the croaks and husky honks, and as she ploughed further into the song it was almost starting to grate.
If it was any other singer, such a delivery would be completely unforgivable. But for Macy Gray, it was that vocal abnormality that launched her to fame in the first place.
The most interesting thing wasn’t happening centre stage. The headline star was indisputably being upstaged by her back-up singer. Wearing an eye-grabbing dress splashed with brightly coloured prints paired with an enormous smile, Shemika Secrest radiated charisma and boasted a stunning set of pipes.
Meanwhile, Gray skulked around the stage laden in dull black, keeping her eyes lowered and singing down to the floor.
Between the formalness of the hall, the stiffness of the crowd, and the unexpected stage dynamics between the star and the back-up singer – things were already feeling weird.
The energy of the band started to lift with the Latin-American vibes emanating from their second song, ‘Related To A Psychopath’, but it just felt strange to be observing party music from allocated seating.
After a breakbeat transition into the jazzy ‘Ghetto Love’, the pace of the set mellowed out to a bundle of intimate, acoustic tracks. Except for one guitarist, the rest of the band cleared off, leaving Macy sitting on the stage platform, singing while swinging her legs with the shyness of a schoolgirl.
The crowd sat through quiet renditions (sometimes uncomfortably quiet) of ‘Sweet Baby’, ‘Sellout’ and ‘Let You Win.’ It was an interesting opportunity to really experience her voice live and completely stripped down.
Gray also had a habit of shying away from the tough notes, pulling her microphone away from her face at the most challenging moment. It seemed to prove that she has never really been an outstanding vocalist, but more of a ‘character singer’, simply relying on her quirkiness and rare, natural sound.
As the band made their way back onstage, Macy pleaded: “Sexy people! Are you ready? Please, give me one dance.”
This was one of the most admirable moments of her performance – that she actually managed to wrangle this stiff, nervous crowd into standing up and acting like they were actually at a concert. Throughout the following funky numbers of ‘Why Didn’t You Call Me’ and ‘Do Something’, people actually left their allocated seats (*gasp!*) and moved to boogie near the stage.
Before the band would come back on for encore, the venue was forced into an a capella group sing-a-long of ‘Give Peace A Chance’. Gray then re-emerged with a costume change – a sheer black top decorated with flowers and a long sparkly magenta skirt – and reignited the party with ‘Smoke Two Joints’ from her latest album, Covered.
The covers continued to flow with Eurythmics’ ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’ and Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’. But It was a struggle to swallow her take on ‘Creep’, mainly due to the band’s decision to feature tambourine in a Radiohead song.
The final song was, of course, ultra mega-hit ‘I Try’, the most anticipated song of the night also prompting the loudest sing-a-long from the crowd, which Gray seemed quite content with, simply choosing to skip singing the chorus entirely as the audience took over.
Overall, it was an enjoyable show, but ultimately it unfortunately proved that the magic Gray managed to bestow on her recorded hits is mostly lost when she is handed a microphone.