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Aside from the initial, obligatory greeting (“Hello, D.C.!”) and the brief invocation for the crowd to chant (“Say sex! Say more sex!”) in the middle of song No. 3, Macy Gray doesn’t really address the audience until her set’s five songs old. Which is a bit of a shame, if only because she has a way with straight speech. “Anybody out there ever been in love?” she asks, and then, after a quick hand count (“Only 150?”), proceeds to unfurl a clipped girl-meets-boy yarn in which said characters eat pizza, go to the movies, meet each other’s parents, shack up, and fight—in that order. Gray particularly relishes the fight sequence: “You the name!” barks Gray, imitating the girl. “No, you the name!” she responds, this time the boy. By the time the argument reaches its apex (“Yabba, yabba, yabba!” screams girl; “Yabba, yabba, yabba!” responds boy), Gray’s leaning on her mike stand and lurching at the audience, looking a little like Johnny Rotten, only happier. The story’s kind of funny because Gray’s kind of funny, and when it’s over, she digs into “Still,” a kind of hate-love spiritual that begins: “In my last years with him there were bruises on my face.” The crowd goes bananas.

Among the subset of not-your-ordinary divas that have helped make R&B the only pop music of the moment that’s the shit—both commercially and critically—Gray stands out for her lack of pretension, which, viewed from the proper angle, is punklike. She has other gifts, of course, foremost among them a voice that’s utterly beautiful, even when it recalls nothing so much as Patti LaBelle on a helium bender. But what all the hype (when did the New Yorker start speculating in the pop-star market?) surrounding Gray’s breakout, On How Life Is, fails to point out is that she possesses a lack of ambition that’s frankly refreshing. Unlike Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, whom we’ve been playing and praising to death for what seems like a decade, Gray doesn’t see her music as a vehicle for teaching social studies, and she’s not trying to remake black pop in her image like D’Angelo. (I know he’s male, but he’s on a Princelike crusade to prove that guys can be divas, too.)

Mary J. Blige is perhaps Gray’s closest corollary, but that’s only because both singers make do with voices that would never earn them much solo time in a good church choir. Blige’s striving renders all her music empowering even when she’s not singing about empowerment per se—I hope she finds real love, too, but am I the only one who can’t listen to her wo-manhandle notes without dreaming of her tucking me into her baby crib? Gray, on the other hand, is like an absentee mom who misplaces her loyalties like car keys. In “I’ve Committed Murder,” one of the perkier songs on a relentlessly perky record, Gray sings of killing the “mean ole bitch” cafe owner who fires her boyfriend “for no reason.” The backup singers handle the refrain: “And I don’t feel bad about it.”

Macy Gray is in the business of being Macy Gray. Her hiphop-spiced reduction of R&B and soul plays like an extension of her personality—which happens to be the singer’s main asset, particularly in person. The 11-person band that she fronts at the 9:30 Club is charmingly ragamuffin; the players sway together during the opening tune, “Why Didn’t You Call Me,” but the choreography pretty much ends there. The stage is Gray’s. She’s a big-boned beauty with a taste for feather boas and reptile-skin pantsuits, but her stage presence falls somewhere between glamorous and cuddly. She’s a better ambler than dancer. Her expressive features are all above the shoulders—face, voice, existential hair. Every other time I look up from my notebook, she’s tilting her head back to kiss the sky.

The voice is what the sellout crowd came to hear—nasal but sexy, raspy without being rough, about as au naturel you can get and still carry a tune. Yet she doesn’t overpower her songs. Life is unassuming as far as star-making vehicles go—no vain producers, sampling kept to a minimum, no Busta Rhymes cameo. It’s just a logical set of songs tempered perfectly for the woman singing them.

To be reproduced live, the tunes need only to be stretched a bit, and Macy & Co. have spent enough time working clubs to be comfortable making 45 minutes of recorded music last for an hour and a half. “Do Something” starts with an extended stretch of turntablism. “The Letter” gets some extra Motown guitar. Gray uses “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak”‘s elongated jam as an excuse to sex-o-matically stroke her mike stand. There’s a gorgeous new ballad in which Gray gets caught messin’ with her ex’s friend, and there are two covers: “Que Sera Sera” writ funky and a version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” that’s more Joe Cocker than Fab Four.

The band doesn’t let its bar-gig looseness compromise the music’s subtle quirks. “I Try” is the first perfect single of the next thousand years, and its most delicious moment comes when the band stops and Macy mush-mouths the word “love” as if she’d just bitten into a donut. The moment’s played to a T live, just before the song mutates into Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” which seems apt enough, coming from Gray. When big things can come from such modest dreams, every little thing’s gonna be all right, indeed. CP