He was the UK’s favourite pop artist of 2015. He was adored for his long hair, his sexually alluring voice and (of course) ‘the hat’. But the James Bay that was, was no longer. Adamant to change his identity, Bay has, for the past few years, focused on an evolutionary journey that would allow him to not only remain relevant, but true to himself. This year, he took this notion from concept to reality with the release of his latest album Electric Lights.
And so Thursday night was the 27 year old Hertfordshire man’s opportunity to prove himself as a redefined artist. Intimately set at South London’s Electric Brixton, the venue is small but absolutely heaving. A sold-out crowd fills every possible space, they cheer at every dimming light, every silhouette appearing on stage. The anticipation is palpable.
The night begins quite solemnly, with a video montage in the background and a few gathering clouds of smoke around the stage. Before long, Bay and his quintet are out on stage and well into the first song, Wasted On Each Other – the first full track off the new album and, therefore, the first time a new song has been performed live for London audiences.
Far removed from the long-haired, hat-bearing acoustic boy of five years ago, Bay appeared in all black, a red Epiphone in hand and with all of the energy he could conjure to ensure this performance became the rock and roll performance he had envisioned. With little less than a moment to pause, he moved from song to song – Pink Lemonade, Craving, If You Ever Want To Be In Love – each time switching guitars and (on two occasions) jackets, for a somewhat ‘rockstar effect’ that seemed more forced than natural.
But after an energetic musical barrage of songs, Bay finally takes a moment to pause and soak in where he actually is. “Well, well, well, London. It’s so nice to be back!”. And as the lights begin to reveal exactly how many people are watching him, the reality sinks in – “Wow, is that actually how many of you are out there?!”.
It’s a comment that bears testament to the nature of his journey from humble street busker, to a grammy nominated artist. His popularity has soared and, with that, the number of people that are proud to call themselves his fans. This was none more evident than during his more famous songs. During Let It Go the venue was filled with the soaring voices of the audience, the sheer volume of which caused Bay to stop and let the crowd do the signing for him.
And in the quiet interludes of Scars, the bellowing cheers were reduced to a whisper as the fans respectfully listened to Bay’s quieter progressions. It was an evening where Bay wanted to achieve a completely new musical identity and, in the process, quietly assassinate the softer character that had once defined him. This was no more evident during his most famous song Hold Back The River which received such a sleek, rock and roll injection, you almost couldn’t tell it was the song that won him People’s Choice at the Brit Awards in 2015.
Additionally, it’s difficult not to recognise the talented musician Bay actually is. Not only is he gifted with the uniqueness of his vocal instrument, but on every song he displayed impressive feats of musical improvisation that hinted at a somewhat John Mayer meets Jonny Lang meets Prince triple fusion. A delightful hybrid that called to account the fact that Bay is actually much more of the musician he may have appeared to once been.
And during Wild Love – the first single off his new album – Bay proved that he could go beyond what was known and familiar, every time reminding his crowd how he could create genuine pop songs that had heart and creativity behind them. It was one of the most popular songs of the evening, calling to account the admiration he continues to receive.
As the night drew to a close, Bay delivered his encore song, Need The Sun To Break, in the most intimate way – through the vocal unison of artist and fans. The theatre echoed the “oooo’s” and “ohhhh’s” of the crowd as he set aside his guitar and improvised his own (impressive) vocal notes on top of them. It was a tranquil yet powerfully sentimental ending to an evening.
While, at the beginning of his performance, he demonstrated a clear obsession with ridding himself of the pop star identity, once he settled into the night Bay certainly delivered an outstanding performance. He displayed such a strong sense of maturity and, perhaps most importantly, a total dislocation from the predictability that once made his shows boring. Would recommend.
Bay takes his Electric Lights tour to the US and Canada next before returning to the UK for seven dates, kicking off at London’s Roundhouse venue.
UK Tour Dates:
29th May – Roundhouse, London
30th May – Albert Hall, Manchester
1st June – O2 Academy, Sheffield
2nd June – Colston Hall, Bristol
3rd June – Corn Exchange, Cambridge
5th June – O2 Academy, Newcastle
6th June – De Montfort Hall, Leicester
Live review of James Bay @ Electric Brixton by Lilen Pautasso on 15th March 2018.
Photos by Kalpesh Patel. Kalpesh has more music photography up on his flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate