There’s really only one unwritten rule for music reviewers: never gush. Well, strap yourselves in, because I’m about to break that rule and break it hard. James Bay and his band picked me up and shook me completely out of my critique’s headspace. Rather than being there for the expressed purpose of reviewing the show, I simply became a fan. How anyone could have been in that venue last night and not walked away a disciple of James’ is beyond me. More about that later.
The evening began with a short serenade from Hein Cooper. The lad can sing, there’s to be no doubting that. Taller than you might expect a pop hopeful to be, he cut a striking figure with his surfer style blonde hair. Musically he’s diverse to say the least. One moment James Taylor, the next Peking Duk, his set is nothing if not a rollercoaster. Whilst not ground breaking, the tunes are certainly easy enough to listen to. His vocals were spot on and soothing, save for the occasional overuse of the falsetto. “Rusty” was the unquestionable highlight; listen to it by all means. Just don’t expect the next song of his you hear to sound anything like it.
Next up was JOY., for whom there was no confusion of genres. She cruises comfortably in the electronica lane. Vocally and lyrically JOY. presents everything you’d expect from a solo female in this genre. Sporting a drummer who used an effects pad and synth player-cum-DJ as her band, her first couple of tracks floated along rather predictably and I began to feel as if I’d mistakenly walked into a Banoffee tribute show. Then came a track which used saxophone and assorted brass samples as its backing. It was an absolute banger. Unfortunately it’s nowhere to be found on her EP, but it shows the breadth of influence she’s hiding underneath an outwardly meek electronic homogeny.
For the opening two acts, there hung a large white sheet as backdrop. As the lights dimmed and the crowd collectively lost control of their vocal chords, the smoke machine silently filled the stage with mist and a silhouette of James and his signature hat was cast upon the sheet. After a short instrumental intro, all at once strobes roared to life, the sheet dropped and James and his band tore their way into “Craving”. It took me all of about ten seconds to realise that I was about to be categorically blown away.
For the first three tracks, James interacted with the crowd only via his eyes. Apart from the words he sung, he said nothing. He understood, as did we, that words were only going to get in the way of his insatiable energy. As he raged around the stage stomping his boots in syncopated rhythm with the drums, all the while totally dominating his guitar, that room was filled with a palpable electricity.
Present on stage was a bassist, a drummer, a keyboardist and a second guitarist. Regrettably, I missed their names. They joined James to take a bow at the end of the show, and well the bloody should. Not one note, stab or key change missed for the entire show. Instrumentalists of the calibre that James had with him last night are the reason musical instruments exist; to have every single drop of their potential squeezed out of them by masters that truly understand their tools and their craft.
The first part of the show consisted mostly of the more upbeat album tracks such as “Get Out While You Can” and “Best Fake Smile”. Quite honestly the show could have ended there, I’d have been satisfied. Because in those 15 minutes, James and band showed me more heart and genuine musicianship than I’ve seen in years.
Of course, the end of the show was the last thing on anyone’s mind at that point. Having dealt already with one of the three hits, “Let It Go”, James pulled the energetic rug out from under us. Lights disappeared and we were left with just James illuminated, centre stage. Henceforth he gifted us with a few minutes of just blues guitar. As he majestically riffed his way into “Scars” I swear I saw Stevie Ray smiling down and passing the torch. The melancholic atmosphere continued with “If You Ever Want To Be In Love” and “Incomplete”, until the obligatory fake departure occurred and we were left pondering what the encore would hold.
James is fast becoming synonymous with the greats of Soul. Why he has been associated with the genre, despite having an outwardly alternative feel to his songs, became very clear last night. Two reasons why what James writes and plays is not just rock music. Firstly, his voice. Pitch perfect all night and with a depth of tone that few singers ever achieve. Secondly, the way he plays the guitar. Hard rock guitarists do not take time to treat the audience to the beautiful subtleties that exist in the tones of Stratocasters and Les Pauls. James and his band did.
As if more evidence of James’ soulfulness was needed, as the first song of the encore he covered Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You”. It was within the captivation of this part of the show that the cavernous depths of James’ talent became crystal clear. For twenty minutes all five musicians wrangled every last morsel of interpretive soloing potential from the core notes of that song. He closed out the show with “Hold Back The River”, and when I thought to myself that that was probably my third favourite performance of the night, I knew I’d witnessed next level musicianship.
As I walked out of the concert, I said to my sister, “How the hell am I supposed to review that?” A fair comment I think, considering there does not exist enough superlatives in the universe to describe what James created last night. Not just a concert, not just music, but a transcendental experience.