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“One of the Best Nights of My Life!” Gavin DeGraw LIVE! at MPAC

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

The crowd at MPAC in Morristown, NJ, this Friday, August 26, 2022 evening excitedly anticipates the start of a live performance by singer/songwriter Gavin DeGraw.

Born in 1977, DeGraw grew up in South Fallsburg, NY, and started singing and playing piano at the age of eight. As a teenager, he discovered the music of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. He went on to perform in a local Catskills group, The People’s Band, before attending Ithaca College and Boston’s Berklee College of Music. After two semesters at Berklee, DeGraw moved to New York City where he signed a record deal with Clive Davis.

DeGraw recorded his debut album, Chariot, in Los Angeles, and rose to fame in 2003 when a cut from that recording, “I Don’t Want to Be,” was chosen as the theme song for the WB teen drama, One Tree Hill. Released as a single by J Records, the song sold over a million copies and earned platinum certification; it was also performed by a variety of contestants on different seasons of TV’s American Idol. With the success of Chariot, DeGraw began performing in venues around the country — notably as the opening act for his musical idol, Billy Joel — and he also released six additional albums. DeGraw’s latest recording is his 2022 effort, Face the River.

As we wait for tonight’s show to begin, we chat with best friends, Alexa and Shauna from Lake Hopatcong, who tell us they have been fans of Gavin DeGraw for nearly ten years. Says Alexa about DeGraw’s appeal, “I would describe his music as both soul and pop, and the moment I need a song that will resonate with what I’m thinking, I’ll listen to Gavin DeGraw.” Shauna concurs, noting, “He’s always our go-to artist to jam out to in the car. We love to sing along with him, and tonight is our first time seeing him in person!”

We also talk to Rachel and Krista from Wanaque, two generations of family members who love Gavin DeGraw. Reveals daughter Rachel, “I’m a big fan of Gavin DeGraw and this is my seventh time seeing him. To me, he’s a pop/rock artist who is completely authentic. He writes his own music and takes his work very seriously. He’s also a genuine person who really cares about his fans and he will even connect with them on social media.” Acknowledges mom, Krista, “I’m a fan because of my daughter,” continuing, “Gavin DeGraw is a talented musician, but I think he’s somewhat underrated — someday, he’s going to be up there just like Billy Joel,” before concluding, “This is my first time seeing him in person and I can’t wait to hear him perform live!”

Inside the MPAC auditorium, blue lights illuminate a drum set and guitar/amp combo set up to the left and right of a baby grand piano placed center stage. The crowd cheers as the house lights dim and Gavin DeGraw and his band — Michael Baker on drums and Billy Norris on guitar — take the stage.

Holding a drink in his hand, DeGraw greets the audience asking, “What’s up?” prior to adding, “Thanks for coming tonight!” Taking a moment to chat with the audience, he explains that over the course of tonight’s show he’ll be playing both new and old material.

Taking a seat at the grand piano, DeGraw opens tonight’s set with “Face the River,” the title track from his new album.

His voice sounding both natural and soulful, DeGraw energetically cries, “I am tired of the waiting/I can hear the record playing/But no music, just the needle/Heaven knows just how I feel,” as he accompanies himself on the piano. Drawing the audience in with his story-driven power ballad, Michael Baker and Billy Norris accompany DeGraw on drums and guitar as the musical arrangement grows in intensity and captivates music lovers who hoot and holler for this spirited performance.

Moving to a stool center stage where he picks up an acoustic guitar, DeGraw announces, “This song is about finding love in the summertime.” Here, he and the band launch into “Summertime,” a slow bluesy funk tune from Face the River that generates a feel-good vibe under hot pink lights.

Billy Norris adds his funky electric guitar voice to the mix in a featured solo that has DeGraw vocalizing over it to avid cheers and applause.

After introducing his fellow band members, DeGraw performs the title track from Chariot which has music lovers on their feet, dancing and singing along to the powerful “Oh, chariot, I’m singing out loud/To guide me/Give me your strength” refrain. DeGraw plays piano while Norris strums his acoustic guitar and adds vocal harmonies. When DeGraw asks the audience, “How are you feeling?” the crowd cheers and happily joins in on the repeated “Chariot!” lyric as colored lights flash in time while illuminating the audience.

Following the rhythmic folk-rock ballad, “We Belong Together,” DeGraw announces, “This next song is about advice,” before sharing with the crowd his three personal rules about asking for it: “1) Only ask someone who loves you,” “2) Always ask someone older than you,” and “3) Be sure to ask someone who has a higher IQ.” DeGraw stands center stage under colored lights singing the country-influenced story song, “Ford,” backed by Norris’ electric guitar and Baker’s drums before going to the piano to sing the bridge. Audience members happily sing along on the “Na-na-na” refrain before erupting at the end with enthusiastic whistles, cheers, and applause.

After telling a story about his mom and dad which served as the basis for his next number, “Freedom (Johnny’s Song),” DeGraw’s country-tinged baritone is featured as he plays power chords on the piano while tapping his feet to the beat in his sneakers. Next, he and the band segue into the pop ballad, “Follow Through,” where music lovers stand and sing along on the “So since you wanna be with me/You’ll have to follow through” chorus, their voices filling the theater with playful enthusiasm.

DeGraw announces, “This is a song about finding the best one — so never settle!” prior to performing “Greatest of All Time.” Standing center stage singing with soul, DeGraw is accompanied by electric guitar and sparse drums before going to to the piano to add additional instrumentation to this funky number. Mid-song, DeGraw inquires, “Anybody here like old school?” before acknowledging, “I’m an old school fan,” and segueing into a bluesy falsetto rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” which draws hoots and hollers from the crowd.

After sharing his thoughts about being in Morristown, NJ — declaring, “This is a beautiful town; people here are nice!” — DeGraw and his band perform “Lover Be Strong.” Lights shine over the stage and into the audience as concertgoers clap along on this pop/rock number in a minor key. Next, piano, electric guitar, and drums accompany “Destiny,” where DeGraw sings with power and feeling on this ballad which features a cascading DeGraw piano solo.

Audience members cheer when DeGraw and Co. launch into “Lighthouse,” an upbeat power ballad which features a wailing Billy Norris electric guitar solo. Piano and drums interplay with Norris’ guitar as the song builds, bringing cheers from the crowd before audience members leap to their feet cheering and applauding for these three talented musicians.

DeGraw stands in the spotlight center stage singing “In Love with a Girl,” a rock and roll tune which has the crowd clapping and dancing along, before he moves to the piano. Electric guitar and vocal harmonies ring out on the song’s “I’m in love with a girl who knows me better/Fell for the woman just when I met her” chorus.

The audience hoots and hollers and DeGraw asks, “Do we have any soldiers in the house?” prior to acknowledging, “We all need ‘soldiers’ in our life.” Acoustic guitar supports clear vocals on “Soldier,” a funky folk-rocker with a hip-hop-influenced beat. DeGraw moves downstage to sing closer to the crowd before holding the mic out and asking the audience to take over singing the lead. Arms wave as band and audience members join together to sing the song’s “Na-na-na” coda.

The crowd continues to sing along on “Not Over You,” an upbeat rocker where piano rings out while lights flash and the crowd claps, cheers, and whistles for Gavin DeGraw and his colleagues.

DeGraw jokes with the audience — telling them how he and the band could leave the stage and make them wait before returning for an encore — but, instead, launches with Norris and Baker into “Crush.” After singing the “Oh my crush/I’ve gotta crush” refrain on this appealing rocker, audience members call out additional potential encore song titles until one fan happily screams, “We love you, Gavin!” and DeGraw replies, “Love you back!”

For a second encore, DeGraw performs “Spell It Out,” a power ballad on which he leaves the piano to serenade the audience with improvised vocal riffs.

The crowd animatedly cheers and applauds and DeGraw exclaims, “Thank you!” before announcing, “I wrote this next song when I was broke and lonely. It’s about waving your own flag whoever you are.”

For his third encore, DeGraw performs his 2003 Top 10 hit, “I Don’t Want to Be.” With just acoustic piano, acoustic guitar, and drums, the trio generates a powerful sound which has the entire audience singing along under flashing lights on the anthemic “I don’t want to be/Anything other than what I’ve been trying to be lately” chorus.

With the crowd standing, cheering, and whistling, DeGraw declares, “Thank you so much, New Jersey!” Then, he and the band take a bow and DeGraw shakes hands with audience members before taking a few moments to sign autographs for fans.

As concertgoers make their way out of the MPAC auditorium, we chat with several music lovers who share their thoughts on Gavin DeGraw’s performance tonight. Exclaims Wilson from Clifton, “This was an awesome show! It was my first time ever seeing Gavin DeGraw and he put on an absolutely great performance!” Bruce from Parsippany concurs, asserting, “I’ve never seen Gavin DeGraw before, but I’m extremely glad I came tonight.”

Next, we chat with Sam from Warwick, NY who acknowledges, “I’ve been a fan of Gavin Degraw’s since One Tree Hill. This is my first time seeing him, and he was fantastic — just amazing! He writes songs that everyone can relate to, and I love his stories, as well. He’s a great musician and a great guy — you can tell because he even stayed to spend time with his fans at the end of the show,” before concluding, “He’s just incredible!”

We also chat with Ellen and her friend, Heidi, both from Albany, NY, who are here tonight to celebrate Heidi’s 50th birthday. Explains Ellen, “We wanted to do something really special for Heidi’s birthday, and this concert turned out to be a lot of fun. Gavin DeGraw’s songs are so wonderful, he has a great voice, and his piano playing is beautiful — he plays piano like a genius!”

Reveals birthday girl, Heidi, “I’ve been a fan of Gavin’s ever since 2003, and this is my third time seeing him in person. He’s extremely talented and he has a phenomenal voice, so I had a fantastic time tonight!” Continuing, “There’s something special about experiencing great live music,” Heidi insists, “Gavin DeGraw was so phenomenal tonight, I was electrified!”

Lastly we chat with Laura from Morristown who recalls, “I’ve been a fan of Gavin DeGraw’s since 2003 when One Tree Hill was popular,” declaring, “This is the best show I’ve ever seen at MPAC!” before reconsidering and acknowledging, “Actually, this was one of the best nights of my life!”

To learn more about Gavin DeGraw, please go to gavindegraw.com. For information on great upcoming performances at Morristown, NJ’s MPAC — including Opening Night: An Evening with Renée Elise Goldsberry on Sept. 30, Philip Phillips: Where We Came From Tour on Nov. 3, and The Rascals featuring Felix Cavaliere and Gene Cornish: Time Peace Tour on Nov. 16 — please click on mayoarts.org.

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