Just before heading off to support Ed Sheeran on yet another leg of his never-ending Divide tour – that man really puts the “world” in World Tour – James Bay played a one-off headline show at the London Palladium. “I wanted to play a special, historic London venue for my fans at home before heading out on tour with Ed over the summer,” said Bay back when he announced the show.
The last time I’d seen him live was about three years ago, in a very sober arena, standing in a crowd of mostly teenage girls who shouted the occasional “I love you, James” during quiet intervals. The London Palladium was definitely a change with its beautiful architecture that made me feel like I was about to watch a musical rather than a rock concert. I was starting to feel a little underdressed, but then I spotted a middle-aged man wearing a “Bay is bae” cap. He’s not wrong. He also highlights the breadth of Bay’s appeal, the crowd ranging from young adults to people who could be their parents, and every age in between, all spotted wearing merch as well.
The support slot was taken on by Bay’s older brother Alex Francis, making this a family reunion as well as a hometown show. I want to avoid drawing too many comparisons between the siblings – the one true family trait is talent – but they have a similar style, and even though I wasn’t familiar with his work, I thoroughly enjoyed his set. From the first note, Francis managed to get the crowd going with his raspy, yet emotional, voice and honest, captivating lyrics such as “If you don’t want my heart, give it back. I could be someone else if I had it.”
He played his new single Whatever Happened, as well as Somewhere In Memory and All I’ve Got. With no standing area available, I hadn’t expected people to actually stand up, but by the end of the set, many were on their feet. Francis did what he needed to do; he got the crowd up and ready to enjoy the rest of the evening. It’s truly a shame not everyone got there on time to see him play, but I’m certain he gained some new fans, e.g., yours truly.
When James Bay finally took the stage and opened the set with sophomore album single Pink Lemonade everyone on the ground floor was on their feet, as well as some on the balcony. From that point on, the show bounced from one highlight to another. After Chaos And The Calm opener Craving, Bay addressed the crowd for the first time with one simple request: to sing as loudly as we possibly could. Everyone happily obliged, and at the end of If You Ever Wanna Be In Love, when the band had stopped playing, it was just Bay, the crowd, and the amazing acoustics of the room.
Bay slowed down proceedings next with songs such as Wild Love, Peer Pressure, and Us, after which he treated the crowd to a song he hadn’t played at all in 2018: Fade Out. It must be stated that the songs from Electric Light sound even better live than they do on the album, which is more electronic-driven. Live, Bay’s voice has a chance to come into its own rather than get somewhat lost in the production as on the album.
The band left the stage for Bay to deliver a solo rendition of Break My Heart Right, another of the songs on his new EP My Messy Mind, going on to explain how much he loves putting out new music whenever he can and feeling that after Electric Light, he still had more he wanted to say. He joked that the only difficulty was trying to remember the words to new songs when he plays them live.
Break My Heart Right got the second loudest applause of the evening, trumped only by the song that followed immediately after, first single Let It Go. I don’t think anyone saw it coming when he brought out Lewis Capaldi to sing along after the first chorus, the crowd going absolutely crazy, the screaming so loud that I’m not sure anyone even heard the first words Capaldi sang. Halfway through the song, they mixed it up with Capaldi’s monster hit Someone You Loved. Capaldi and Bay’s voices blended wonderfully to conclude the song – the full video of which is available on Bay’s YouTube channel.
The band returned to the stage to speed things up with We Were On Fire and Get Out While You Can before the set was closed out with Best Fake Smile. Of course, this was only for Bay to return for the encore, where he tackled Bad accompanied only by his guitar. A cover of Janis Joplin’s Piece Of My Heart followed before the evening ended with the 2015 Grammy-nominated Best Rock Song, Hold Back The River.
It’s always a joy to watch James Bay play. His passion and talent are evident and even the prolonged guitar solos kept the crowd mesmerised. Bay doesn’t need confetti or fireworks to make a spectacle, although I must admit the lighting show did an amazing job at setting the mood throughout the night.
For everyone seeing Ed Sheeran on tour this summer, I can definitely recommend going down early to catch Bay’s set. You won’t regret it.
Review of James Bay at The London Palladium on 22nd May 2019 by Silke Roegiers and photography by James Boardman.