Written by Chad Taylor
Madison Ray has lost his way.
Once upon a time, in a publication far, far away, I said of Ray: "Watch the show, and you're blown away; turn away from the stage and it's a hit-or-miss night at the karaoke bar."
He used to be good at what he did. Never particularly inventive—Ray's pretty much always thrived on a steady diet of covers—but there was a time when you at least heard enough in his vocals to think that he could be a viable entertainment option. His 2011 EP "The Revolution, Vol. 1" isn't quite the anthemic call to arms that it clearly wants to be, but there's some solid work there and Ray's studio vocals provide a solid foundation.
Unfortunately, Ray seems to be less a performer and more a Svengali. Despite having a stage show that's wildly inconsistent and largely style over substance; despite having a stagnant, cover-heavy set list; despite largely eschewing a live band for a DJ and some backing tracks, this musical charlatan still has a large number of people convinced that he's a musician.
That obviously continues to be the case this year, as he was booked to help anchor the entertainment for Pridefest 2014, along with Grammy winner Mya. I don't want to put too fine a line on that last point—this is a "what have you done for me lately" world, and Mya's answer to that question is "not much"—but the fact remains that there's just no possible way in which the former name belongs on the same bill with the latter.
After a lengthy and largely well-received series of drag queen and dance performances, Ray took the stage on Saturday night right in the middle of a pocket of nice weather. It had been a difficult first day for Pride; most of the morning and early afternoon was held under a deluge, and high gusts of wind threatened to blow vendor tents into the Des Moines River throughout the night. But the window for Ray's performance was clear. Clouds continued to roll overhead, but everyone was dry and people were clearly having a good time.
Ray's performance turned into little more than a vaguely enthusiastic speed bump in the festivities. Most glaringly, most of the vibrant stage performance upon which Ray's already-shaky shows have been propped up was missing. Left to his own devices on a stage that large, with no real band to back him up and blow people away, it's made abundantly clear that this emperor has no clothes.
Ray's vocals were shaky in the best of times. At their worst, the performer sounded winded and tired, pushing out the ends of lines like a first-time marathoner trying to hold a conversation. This was coupled with the fact that, as previously mentioned, there was nothing new about Ray's set. If you've seen the man perform at any point in the past year, you've seen the set he trotted out for Pride, and you've probably seen it done better. There was nothing about this performance from the RAW Des Moines 2013 Musician of the Year that wasn't completely mailed in, and that's a crying shame for everyone involved.
The night was summed up perfectly by Ray himself towards the end of his set, after an uninspired rendition of Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean."
"How are we all doing tonight?" Ray asked an increasingly uninterested crowd. After receiving an indifferent cheer as reply, Ray shouted: "Oh, come on. You can do better than that."