As an artist who authenticates his music through vulnerability, Conan Gray has mastered the skill of channeling profound emotion into his shows. The 23 year-old indie-pop songwriter took on The Anthem in D.C. on March 12, infusing the audience with a mix of wistfulness and exuberance.
From the moment Gray emerged onstage with the characteristically sardonic lyric, “19 but you act 25 now,” unparalleled excitement washed over the Anthem, laying the foundation for an outstanding performance to come. The buildup to his entrance was electrifying, with a video of a restless, caged crow projected on the stage as the band drummed up a crescendo. A single spotlight revealed Gray on the elevated landing just as the crow broke free, eliciting thunderous cheers from the audience. Opening with the wildly popular chorus of “Wish You Were Sober” was a brilliant choice; the energy behind Gray’s entrance was enough to send the crowd into overdrive (a little Conan pun for those of you who are hip).
Gray smoothly transitioned into “Telepath,” one of his 2021 releases and an ode to the ecstasy of 80s synth-pop. Albeit not his most widely known single, “Telepath” was met with the reverberating sound of thousands singing along, emphasizing just how many devoted fans were in the audience. The same effect took place with some of his other deep cuts, such as “Affluenza” and “Little League,” encapsulating the community and dedication of those in attendance.
The vibrancy of Gray’s songs were amplified by his backdrop, from a flashing red checkerboard during “Checkmate” to an eye-catching, neon-hued lyric video during “Maniac.” But when it came to the raw and vulnerable ballads of “Astronomy,” “Lookalike,” and “The Story,” Gray recognized their melancholy nature. For these numbers, he stripped the stage of distractions, opting instead for a stark, personal feel. The band was practically hidden in the shadows during the celestial tune “Astronomy,” and by “Lookalike” and “The Story,” the stage was nothing but Gray, his acoustic guitar, and monochromatic lighting—the perfect opportunity to exhibit his skilled melody and vocal control. Contrary to the overflowing concert venue, Gray’s isolation onstage was distinctly intimate, as if the audience was witnessing something far too personal to be shared outside of the Anthem’s walls. In contrast to his fast-paced sets, which were rooted in an enlivening relationship with the crowd, Gray approached his ballads as if he were alone, offering those in attendance a vulnerable window into his soul.
Conan Gray has undeniable expertise in his craft; the young artist understands how best to showcase not only his musical prowess, but also the storytelling intertwined within his songs. “Fight or Flight” depicts the rollercoaster of a cheating relationship, and when performed live, the ad-hoc inflections that Gray added fed directly into his sarcastic tone. The same was done with the enjoyably cynical “Wish You Were Sober,” and even “The Cut That Always Bleeds,” although the latter includes a poignant degree of pain that Gray wove into his voice accordingly. Complemented by his diary entry-style lyrics, the singer’s delivery created a palpable sense of openness.
While it’s one thing to convey vivid emotion and harmonious pitch during a ballad, it’s something else entirely to do the same in an upbeat pop song—which is exactly what Gray accomplished with bangers like “Overdrive,” “Maniac,” and “Jigsaw.” Even when jumping around or leaning down to interact with fans in the front row, neither his enthusiasm nor his vocal control wavered. During the chorus of “Maniac,” especially, the Anthem nearly burst at the seams with energy; there wasn’t a person in attendance who wasn’t belting, “Tell all of your friends that I’m crazy and drive you mad / That I’m such a stalker, a watcher, a psychopath.”
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Gray’s performance was his down-to-earth and gratifying persona, something that he has expressed online and was far more personal when experienced live. Gray took the time between songs to speak to the audience as if he was our best friend, candidly engaging with signs and letting his Gen-Z personality shine through. At one point, he checked in to clarify that we had all been drinking water and paused the show to distribute water bottles to the mosh pit. When informed that someone had passed out in the pit, he immediately ensured that they were cared for, clearly prioritizing those in attendance. Gray was charming and accessible, making charismatic comments filled with Texan “y’all”s and thanking the crowd profusely for selling out The Anthem. Despite having expanded his career on social media platforms, Gray takes nothing for granted, continuously ensuring a sense of human connection both online and offline.
From beginning to end, Gray’s performance was rooted in versatility, not only in his music style but also in the visually-striking stage setup and the emotion underlying his every word. Conan Gray’s 2022 tour has been long-awaited, and it certainly did not disappoint. In fact, it was a true testament to his stellar artistry.