Following his breakthrough debut L.P. The Chaos And The Calm, released in 2014, and it’s divergent follow-up Electric Light four years later, which saw the Hitchin-hailing singer-songwriter and guitarist do away with both his signature felt Fedora hat and folksy, acoustic stylings for a grittier electric sound, Bay returned confidently to familiar form last year with third L.P. Leap.
And so, following a storming run of shows in support of Leap last year, Bay appears tonight at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall for something of a triumphant homecoming at the world-famous Victorian hall. But it is rousing debut record single Best Fake Smile that kicks off proceedings, Bay appearing on stage in shadows, his sticksman hammering duel kick drums, guitars throwing out a Country music vibe as the London crowd clap along.
James Bay @ Royal Albert Hall
Soulful Leap single Give Me The Reason has Bay’s words echoed back to him from both the hallowed hall and his audience. “Royal Albert Hall” he declares. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been to this venue, I never thought I’d get to say those words from this stage” he shares, humbly thanking his audience. “We’re shaking the cobwebs off” he continues, sharing how he and his band are starting the year of live music off a little late.
“I know it’s wednesday but are you down to sing?” he rhetorically asks his audience to screams. “That’s all I came here for, is to hear you sing with us” he continues, switching his electric guitar for an acoustic before the band dive into Chaos And The Calm cut If You Ever Want To Be In Love, Americana stylings shining through tonight’s live rendition.
Enjoying his audience’s participation Bay states: “I’m gonna have to take tonight for everything I can get, sing it with me one more time”, the band-lead instructing his band to play another iteration of the chorus.
A first taste of 2018’s Electric Light is next, by way of Wanderlust, delicious electric guitars elevating the Fleetwood Mac-flavoured tune before pounding beats and keys lead sophomore record ballad Us. “You sound incredible out there” Bay offers before introducing 2019 EP tune Peer Pressure.
“If you know it, sing it loud. If you don’t … sing whatever you want” he ad-libs, delicate beginnings lifted by storming beats and female vocals.
Debut 2014 single Let It Go has the crowd swaying along before singing loudly as Bay hands vocal duties over to them. ”I tell myself all the time ‘plan what you’re gonna say, think about it, maybe even rehearse it’” the 32-year-old jests before going on to describe the process for Leap being “chewed up by the pandemic”.
Bay goes on to gush about his partner Lucy Smith, sharing that the two of them got married in 2022 and had a baby, and that tonight is Lucy’s first night out since their little one arrived. “She’ll hate me for saying it, but she let me borrow her jacket” he jests, modelling for the audience before going on to describe how Lucy had, unbeknownst to her, helped him through so many life challenges. “Of all the songs I wrote for Leap, this was the first one I wrote” he says, introducing One Life.
Bay delivers Electric Light cut Stand Up solo. “This song is from my second album, and for anybody who knows that album there’s a lot of noises, there’s a lot of sounds, there’s a lot of experimentation” he explains “I had the time of my life writing that music, I did exactly what I wanted to do, which is a difficult thing to do” possibly pushing back on the critics of his direction change before delivering an acoustic rendition of the tune.
The stage is re-shuffled next, continuing the short acoustic set, keyboards and guitars brought to the front of the stage for a live outing of Chaos And The Calm song Need The Sun To Break. The Portland, Oregon-based sister trio opening act Joseph join Bay and company next for more stripped-back goodness from Electric Light via Wild Love, the Closner sisters’ vocal harmonies lifting the song off the stage and across the vast hall.
Leap cut Silent Love closes out the acoustic section of the set before the full band return to the stage, with Joseph taking up position at the rear for the remainder of the night, soul-driven sophomore record tune Fade Out kicking off tonight’s third act, quickly followed by debut record cut When We Were On Fire, a bluesy guitar intro enticing the crowd to clap along. Bay keeps on giving, making good use of the stage, proving to be no slouch on guitar as he delivers an extended guitar outro.
Keyboard-led Endless Summer Nights brings us up to date once more, the Hitchen man encouraging his audience to clap along, the Closner sisters’ choral addition elevating the tune.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I see one or two people standing” he jests, gesturing to the seated stalls sections of the venue. “It might be the Royal Albert Hall, but we can dance. I’ve seen you do it before” he encourages before diving into Leap song Everybody Needs Someone.
The opening guitar licks of Electric Light single Pink Lemonade have the crowd screaming from the outset before the main set is closed out with debut record fan favourite Craving. “Will you promise me one thing? Will you promise we can do it again? ‘Cause that’s all I want to do” he beams.
Following the customary stage departure, Bay and co. return, the band lead teasing Elvis Presley hit Can’t Help Falling In Love before changing direction into 2015 single Scars, the muted skeletal intro filled out by the Royal Albert Hall audience singing the song’s chorus back, before the band and sisters Closner lift the tune with additional instrumentation and vocals.
Bay’s biggest hit closes out the night, the Hitchin man demanding the entire audience be upstanding as his troupe storm into a rousing live intro for 2014 hit Hold Back The River.
Tonight is a masterclass in just how to bring together a decade’s worth of music in varied form, keep a 5,000+ audience engaged and deliver an uplifting, rousing and immensely enjoyable evening of music. Bay is certainly a star that will, no doubt, be headlining arena and main festival stages before too much longer.
James Bay hits the festival circuit next with stops at Tunes In The Dunes in Perranporth and In It Together Festival in Port Talbot next month before a series of European and UK stops through the summer, including a set at BST Hyde Park, supporting Bruce Springsteen.
Live review and photography of James Bay @ Royal Albert Hall by Kalpesh Patel on 26th April 2023.