David Gray is an artist, but not one to be puzzled over. The British singer-songwriter trades in sophisticated pop songs that express simple emotions, as unambiguous as many of their titles: "Be Mine," "Now and Always," "The One I Love," "You're the World to Me," "This Year's Love." Sensing a theme here?
Thursday night at a full Verizon Wireless Theater, Gray (no relation... we think) and his band treated the audience, seated and many of them holding hands, to a fast-paced set of white-collar soul that sprawled well past the 90-minute mark. The music may have been monochromatic - lush melodies and direct rhythms paced by Gray on either piano or guitar - but it made an effective canvas for his pleas and reassurances.
It wasn't completely without variety, either. Acoustic-laced breakthrough single "Babylon" was slower than the version on 1999's White Ladder, all the better for the crowd to sing along; the new "Stella the Artist," from last year's Draw the Line, was a robust rocker that brought to mind a beefed-up Jackson Browne circa Running on Empty.
Gray's songs are heartfelt without resorting to cliché, often employing natural imagery - he seems to like the sea a lot - as a means to illuminate the vagaries of that crazy little thing called love. Almost to a one, but especially on "The One I Love," which closed out the main set around 10:30 p.m. with the same undisguised yearning of the Waterboys' "Fisherman's Blues," his romantic notions came cloaked in an air of great sadness, poignant reminders that hearts can break even as they melt. And Thursday was for lovers.
Phosphorescent (above) opened with a painfully brief five-song set that juxtaposed hangdog rural waltzes like "Wolves" and mellow acoustic finger-picking with stormier affairs like "At Death, A Proclamation," which the five-piece band set on with traces of Neil Young and Tom Petty at their most agitated. "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way," from last year's To Willie, was stout, fuzzy country-rock at a much faster clip than the Red Headed Stranger's original, although front man Matthew Houck's phrasing is similar to Willie Nelson's - both men hopscotch all around the meter, playing chicken with a clock that ran out all too soon.