Sam Fender hasn’t released a full-length album. He’s not had a song featured in one of those omnipresent car adverts or even the heavy-rotation trailer for yet another interchangeable BBC cop show. He’s not even made Ant and Dec cry on Britain’s Got The Voice, or whatever it is they’re hosting now.
But thanks to one EP, a string of singles, and incessant touring (133 shows since last January), the 2019 Brit Awards Critics’ Choice winner has now sold out two nights at Shepherds Bush Empire. And when he returns to London in December it will be Brixton Academy that sells out.
Not bad for a for 23-year-old who, when discovered by Ben Howard’s manager 6 years ago, was pulling pints at a North Shields pub. That turning point is one of several anecdotes Fender shares (alongside memories of “sitting on me arse watching Homes Under The Hammer” and befriending his guitarist while pelting eggs at a Co-Op) that help explain his popularity. While gigs can feel like cynical transactions between performer and consumer, his show is a good night out with friends.
Between songs, he’s chatty, grounded, and (with comments like “this is all completely daft”) still genuinely excited (and slightly bemused) by this fame thing. During songs, he experiences the music and lyrics as intensely as his biggest fans do.
But Fender has a lot more to offer than a personal connection. Like strong songs. All have big hooks, and even bigger melodies that sometimes amplify the beauty and sometimes temper the darkness. An incandescent The Borders is the ultimate War On Drugs/Killers mashup, complete with pina-coladas-by-the-poolside sax solo, while All Is On My Side is what a California sunrise might sound like.
But beneath the giant choruses of the slow burning, gut punching Dead Boys lie lyrics of male suicide. The brooding Play God manages to pull off a spontaneous audience clap-along and loud, intense musical crescendo in short succession.
And, given the most raucous response of the night, the instantly memorable Hypersonic Missiles hits as hard musically (killer guitar riff, seismic drumming, more sax) as it does lyrically (“The cities lie like tumours all across the world/ A cancer eating mankind, hitting it on blindside”). Exploding to life from a quiet voice-and-guitar intro, the title track of his forthcoming debut album is loud and powerful, but so is the audience singalong.
Their response is almost as intense for Leave Fast. Performed solo by Fender, the stripped-back vocal and guitar rendition really showcases his third gift: a voice with range, power, and soul. Always impassioned but never forced, it vividly brings to life the deeply personal song about his hometown.
His voice continues to dominate on a one-man makeover of Poundshop Kardashians. The shimmering studio version is dismantled to its bare bones, but that just gives the crowd even more licence to clap out the beat and provide rowdy backing vocals.
Bringing the solo interlude to a close is the downbeat, on the pulse White Privilege (namechecking issues like Brexit, phone addiction, social media echo chambers, outrage culture, mansplaining), which ends with Fender letting that voice fly, to devastating effect.
It would be a bit of a downer to end such an otherwise exuberant gig on thoughts of the patriarchy, the right-wing press, and “smug liberal arrogance”. So Fender brings back the band for a riotous, feelgood take on Morning Glory, the Oasis song released the year before he was born. He plays it like it’s one of his own. The kids down the front lap it up, but it’s the grin on Fender’s face that really reflects just how much fun tonight’s been.
Review of Sam Fender at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 7th May 2019 by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Simon Reed.