With Macy Gray, you always expect the unexpected.
But at last night’s “Origins Rocks Month” concert at Webster Hall, the Grammy-winner outdid herself. Not only did she turn a free show – attendees recycled old makeup containers at Origins stores in exchange for tickets – into an event, but Gray showcased songs from her upcoming album “The Sellout” that were nothing short of spectacular.
She set the tone with the one-two combo of “Kissed It,” Gray’s soulful twist on an upbeat arena rocker (complete with Slash guitar solo on the album), and the disco-riffic “Lately,” which combined her old-school soul style with the Euro-breeziness of Estelle’s “American Boy.” It was clear that Gray and her impressive eight-piece band were here to play.
“You are virgins, you are pure,” Gray said, introducing the live debut of “That Man,” before jokingly adding, “We’ll pay you to like it.”
No payment was necessary, though. “That Man” sharpened Gray’s sly wit to Kanye West levels and her retro-soul vocals to a Sharon Jones edge, even before the knowing wink to the “Batman” theme.
She followed that with a stunning version of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” that started out remarkably faithful and then added a bit more Motown zing to the joyful breakdown of the original. Her signature song “I Try” was fittingly epic, pairing nicely with her new single “Beauty in the World,” which is built for massive sing-alongs and repeated radio airplay.
For a show that could easily have been phoned in, Gray certainly brought the heat.
Maybe she was inspired by Ryan Star’s opening set. Instead of waiting cocooned in her dressing room, Gray watched Star from the balcony, as he delivered a fiery half-hour set with his increasingly powerful four-piece backing band.
Star played with the hunger of having something to prove, roaring through songs from the forthcoming “11:59" album. “Right Now” was especially potent, as Star pushed his vocals higher, and “Last Train Home” was poignant as he talked about how he explains on tour how it reminds him of his Dix Hills home, drawing roars from the crowd that would match only the reaction to the later part of Gray’s set.
The centerpiece of the set was his current single “Breathe,” which he told the crowd had been added to VH1 last week and asked for their help in voting it into the cable channel’s countdown. (“It’s going to be a long summer for all of us for carpal tunnel syndrome,” he joked. “Just send the bills to the record company.”)
His cover of The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” spoke to the Earth Day theme of the Origins show, but also played well to the vocal strengths of Star, who gave the opening a more dramatic, brooding opening. His harmonies with keyboardist Dallin Applebaum on the chorus quickly shifted it to a more uplifting place.
But it was the wild delivery of “Back of Your Car” that left the most lasting impression, as he belted out the chorus and jumped around the stage. Like Gray, Star is ready for his closeup and he’s willing to fight for it.
MACY GRAY SETLIST: Kissed It / Lately / I’m So Glad You’re Here / Why Didn’t You Call Me? / Do Something / That Man / Wake Up / Sexual Revolution/Do Ya Think I’m Sexy / Oblivion / I Try // ENCORE: Beauty in the World
RYAN STAR SETLIST: We Might Fall / Brand New Day / Right Now / Last Train Home / Breathe / We Can Work It Out / Back of Your Car
PHOTO: Macy Gray on "Dancing with the Stars" by Getty Images.