Avid music lovers will be familiar with this experience: you spend endless hours online, trawling blogs and YouTube, akin to the hours like-minded people used to spend in vinyl shops. You stumble upon a promising yet unknown band, and get excited about recommending them to your friends. Eventually, however, you give up, because everyone is listening to what the radio plays anyways. After a while though, the band might break through, and all your friends happily sing along to the lyrics. You mumble from your corner: “I always told you they were good!”
For me, this has happened with two artists – Mumford & Sons and James Bay. It was in 2013 that I stumbled upon a catchy song called “When We Were On Fire”, which introduced the music world to a rough diamond of witty songwriting and a unique voice. Within a year after the release of his first EP “The Dark After Morning”, which included the latter song, and touring through America, James Bay sold out his very first UK headline show.
Fast forward to 2015 and James Bay is back in Glasgow for a double show at the O2 Academy, which proved the critics who see him as a mayfly wrong, and showed that, after just over 24 months of touring and recording, James Bay knows how to hijack an audience for an enjoyable ride.
However, this was not only a night of James Bay; it was a night of powerful and unique voices. London-born Samm Henshaw opened the night with a thirty-minute slot, presenting songs from his freshly released EP “The Sound Experiment”. The multi-instrumentalist managed to fill the half-full room with his soulful voice and clever arrangements. If his second song, in the style of Aloe Blacc hadn’t called the audience’s attention yet, nor the third song “Redemption” with a powerful build-up in the middle, then it was the interlude to the fifth song, a soul-y version of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” that got everyone chanting along. The architecture of the venue, with its church-like high ceilings, helped Henshaw’s songs, which are influenced by his background in gospel music, to unfold all their power.
After Henshaw’s impressive set, came Elle King’s. The daughter of former SNL actor Rob Schneider did not lose any time, and kicked off the first song with a splendid display of her voice. Seven songs later, we had heard stories about her life and relationships from a band that knows how to fluctuate between soul, rock, blues and Americana, punctuated with a Rock’n’Roll version of the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”.
An artist of 25 rarely gets the chance to play in front of a full house that knows all of his lyrics by heart, but James Bay can count himself as one of the lucky ones, bearing witness to a Glaswegian crowd that did justice to its reputation. As Elle King said – in a voice that would more than qualify to perform the next James Bond opening song – “Glasgow fuckin’ rules”, and this was a line that James Bay would echo more than once later in the show.
Alternating between powerful rock songs backed by up to three electric guitars and anthemic ballads such as “Move Together”, James Bay knows how to excite his following. He doesn’t talk much, but he doesn’t have to. You can see, hear and feel the fun he and his four band mates are having in front of a stunningly dedicated crowd, that rapidly picks up the smallest opportunities to sing along, clap their hands or simply dance. The first half of the concert is closed by an excellent delivery of the hit single “Let It Go”, but when Bay announces “Enough of that slow stuff now, I wanna see you move”, things start to heat up with “Sparks”. The more up-beat second half of the gig concludes with the steady rock of “Get Out” and leaves the crowd longing for more.
Sometimes, his songs and the build-up to the climax are too formulaic and show a lack of originality, but “Scars” truly enchanted the crowd. It started off as a solo performance by James Bay, the stage dimly lit, drawing the focus to Bay’s guitar and voice. When the crowd drowned him out, the band stopped playing and let the audience take over the song. The final release came when the band picked up song again, maintaining the intensity until the end.
The encore concluded the night with the pinnacle performances of the evening – a rendition of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” culminating in a ten minute long guitar solo, and Bay’s most famous song “Hold Back The River”. James Bay’s music is prone to attracting a younger, inexperienced audience, and his song structures borrow elements that are well-proven in the context of pop music. A James Bay concertgoer might not see the most original or innovative set ever, but they will certainly encounter a very talented young man. And, let’s not forget his words of wisdom: “Glasgow is the number one place to play in the UK.”