Less than a sixth of the 2,500-plus seats were occupied at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Carol Morsani Hall when Macy Gray took the stage last Thursday. Which is a shame, because it was a good time.
Gray's laconic and gravelly vocal style was a shift from the retro dance-funk of opener The Brand New Heavies. Too cool and earthy to be a diva, Macy strutted the stage with head cocked, shoulder raised in a permanent shrug, commanding attention without really trying. Whether belting or rasping, she projected a wounded but joyful innocence and managed to rev up her six-piece band (two drummers! Good lord) and two sha-na girls without really exerting herself too much.
Not that Macy lacked energy — she was all over the bandstand, up between the drummers one moment and all up in the bassist's grill the next. The sha-na girls, bedecked in throwback sequin dresses, embellished the spectacle with harmony washes and unison dance moves.
"On the count of three, I want all the sexy people in the house to say your name," Macy cried, and all of the reported 397 people in attendance screamed in response as Macy launched into the bittersweet "Glad You're Here." Again, though, she stayed above the fray while her band worked its way into a groove. Macy disappeared and reappeared in a new dress — a habit that began to bug me after the third time. Why does she get applause for a costume change?
Macy's presence proved more captivating than her tunes, while The Brand New Heavies' frontwoman N'Dea Davenport was a sparkplug amid a band that seemed tired. Neither group got the turnout they deserved, of course, which still puzzles me.
"The only reason we came to Tampa is that we read in
OK magazine they know how to party," Macy said huskily, smiling, "and that all the people in Tampa are sexy!"
On this occasion, flattery got her ... somewhere.
The Brand New Heavies, erstwhile pioneers in the milieu retroactively classified as neo-soul, opened the evening with a predictable but endearing set. Davenport rejoined the band last April following a 12-year run spent seeking solo success, so it was business as usual again for BNH with their neo-soul coming dangerously close to, well, soul. To prevent such an eventuality, though, the synthesizer commanded the forefront, smoothing any potential rough and reactive edges and leaving a string of bouncy and occasionally porno-sonic grooves.
True to form in baby-makin' music, the trumpet sounded like a saxophone and the saxophone sounded greasy, while the bass worked its ass off to maintain the illusion of a party. The guitar was buried deep in the mix for most of the set, the only exception being on the excellent "I Don't Know Why I Love You," BNH's new single, which, if for some reason you see Chris Rock's movie I Think I Love My Wife, you'll hear. N'Dea stole the show with grace, egging on her bandmates and dancing like a lovely maniac.
But the disconnect between the show's dance-party fantasy and the lackadaisical, under-attended reality defined the evening. The jarringly posh surroundings of Morsani Hall contributed to the generally restrained feel of the proceedings. Even Davenport complained, regularly but with relative tact, about the dearth of dancing. "I notice y'all aren't standing up yet," she observed after the final notes of "I Don't Know Why I Love You." "What can we do to make y'all stand up?"
A sliver of response came from an unlikely source: A white, middle-aged male usher started moving, almost imperceptibly at first, then worked up to bouncing and gyrating. A concertgoer entered and required his assistance, at which point the usher, mortified, stopped dancing.