Macy Gray Creates “A Wonderful World” at the Iridium

By MARILYN LESTER**** When Macy Gray takes the stage to deliver her unique brand of entertainment, her audience can’t get enough. She has a rock-star following, with fans selling out her shows for the chance to sing along and generally groove to her music. The bond goes two ways; Gray cultivates an intimacy with her audiences, reflected in her intensely personal style of songwriting and performing. The connection with the crowd, especially in an intimate space like the Iridium, is powerful and direct. In her Part Two opener, for instance, an extended “Beauty in the World,” Gray actively encouraged the willing to stand up, sing and move to the groove. Part of that segment, “What a Wonderful World,” which Bob Thiele (as George Douglas) and George David Weiss wrote in 1967 (famously recorded by Louis Armstrong) walks its thematic talk. Gray puts her own stamp on the music with her own set of lyrics – a wish list of items, such as love abounding and world peace. The vibe in the room was already on it.

Gray began the evening’s set with “Relating to a Psychopath,” a poster child piece for her originality. Melody (which she writes quite well) is secondary to the poetry of her lyrics – “def poetry,” the kind based mostly on urban culture (and to a large extent the African American experience) expressed through personal opinions and life stories. “Caligula” and “Creep” typify her capacity for fierce, raw emotion. Gray moves kinetically on stage, reminiscent of the energy of James Brown and the gyrations of Joe Cocker. She’s also an actress, and this training underpins her capacity to deliver a composition with gutsy feeling and authenticity. Her phrasing is impeccable. She has firm roots in jazz, but down deep she’s a blues mama, with overlays of R&B and funk. The voice, noted for its singularity, is a mix of kewpie doll and raspy smokiness. Her band, a quartet of top musicians, including her long-time bass guitarist Daryl Johns, played mostly in an R&B groove, with a delightful reggae twist on Gray’s “Me With You.” Their solo of “The ‘In’ Crowd” (which gave Gray time for a costume change at the end of Part One) was a hip, straight ahead swing of the 1964 Billy Page song.

Gray’s closer was the hit that made her a star, one she once tried to get away from, but has since embraced – “I Try.” The audience couldn’t get enough, and she gave them the full monty in return. Once plagued with drug problems and coping with bipolar disorder, Gray’s penultimate act on stage was a chant, taken up by the audience, and encouraged by the diva: “Everything’s going to be alright.” There was no reason to disbelieve her. She’s a den mother, cheerleader, an understanding friend and life coach rolled into one package of ardent expression. This true original in every way is just what the doctor ordered, particularly on a very cold night at the end of a very difficult year for many.

Macy Gray New Year’s Bash played December 30 and 31, 2017, with two shows nightly.

The Iridium, 1650 Broadway, 212-582-2121, www.theiridium.com