LIVE: Nathan Gray @ The Courtyard Theatre, London

By Ellie Odurny

The Grade II listed Courtyard Theatre is an unassuming redbrick venue, a stone’s throw from the bustling nightlife of Shoreditch. Tucked downstairs, small groups of fans are milling around in the cosy bar area, waiting for the doors to the studio space to open. Once they do, everyone makes their way towards the stage and finds their spot, eyes on Nathan Gray and guitarist Ben Christo, who are nearly ready to begin their set. Tonight is a one off acoustic show, sandwiched between a mini European headline tour, and upcoming dates in the US and Canada with a full touring band. It’s quite a contrast jumping from sold out venues on the continent to a tiny room in a basement in North London, but there is no sense that this gig means any less than any other show to these two musicians.

The stage lights are bright, and Gray spends the first few minutes introducing himself to the room with this hands shielding his eyes. It’s not the most conventional of beginnings to an intimate acoustic show, but it sets the tone for the rest of the evening quite accurately. Once the lights are lowered to a less offensive level, the music begins with a mellow rendition of ‘Never Alone’ from recent release ‘Working Title.’ As they move swiftly into ‘As The Waves Crash Down,’ the opening track from Gray’s debut solo album ‘Feral Hymns,’ the two joke about keeping the tempo fittingly slow for an acoustic set, and Christo plays a few chords to set the pace before the song begins. It’s clear from the off that the bond between Gray and Christo is one of true friendship on top of musical compatibility.

Despite tempo concerns, the flow of the set works well, pairing higher energy numbers with the slower, moodier tracks like ‘Burn Away’ and the emotive ‘Find Me.’ Gray has a raw, clean-rock power to his heartfelt vocals, which is skilfully complemented by Christo’s harmonies. The combination of acoustic and electric guitars also works, and the crowd visibly relaxes throughout the set, toes tapping and heads bopping in time.

Every few tracks, Gray takes a step off stage away from the microphone to talk properly to the audience. There are sufficiently few people present that he hardly needs to raise his voice to address the room, and the atmosphere almost takes on an air of a group therapy session. Gray’s anecdotes sound genuine and sincere, and when he introduces ‘Enough,’ from last year’s ‘Split’ EP with the words “You are all enough, just as you are,” you believe he really means it.

The set isn’t without its glitches. ‘Enough’ ends up repeating the middle section at least once, and ‘Hold’ from the latest release is restarted from verse 2. But somehow, this fallibility makes the show that much more endearing.

Between  ‘Echoes’ and ‘No Way,’ Gray talks about the tough times he faced in his past, and how he has healed through making music. He somehow manages to flow seamlessly from discussing a place of real pain and darkness, to enacting a Spinal Tap-esque moment, hiding  behind an amp stack as a joke before the ‘encore’. Closing with the emotionally charged ‘Alone’ and more upbeat  ‘Quixote’s Last Ride’ (complete with a competition to see who can hold a note for the longest), the show ends on a high. Gray describes how he can talk about his challenges and remain positive , saying “I don’t feel the hurt that these songs came from, I just see the flower that bloomed from it.”

If you’re after a slick, professional performance that matches the record note for note, then perhaps a Nathan Gray acoustic show isn’t for you. But if you’re after an uplifting experience with accomplished musicianship and powerful lyrics, then do check him out next time he’s in town. This is one emotional rollercoaster that’s worth a ride.