I’m a firm believer that Brighton might well be the secret cradle of modern UK pop music. Hitchin born James Bay cut his musical teeth in the bars of that very UK seaside town at open-mikes. Now he’s heavily touted as a future Rockstar and warming up audiences for The Stones and Ed Sheeran. His appearance, along with that of this year’s Eurovision winner Duncan Laurence, made a visit to Kunstrasen on Thursday too good to resist.
It was worth getting to the show in good time to catch the opener, JC Stewart. Hailing from a small village near Derry in Northern Ireland, Stewart has some nice music and intelligent lyrics in his repertoire. He is a fan of headliner James Bay too and that’s evident in much of his music – particularly the emotional ‘Medicine’. A nice way to start the evening and a name we could be hearing more of in future.
Duncan Laurence is proud that a song of his was not only chosen for Eurovision this year but actually won the Competition. ‘Arcade’ is a must sing this evening then. I’m not too sure I would have recognized it amongst the rest of the set though. Not without the video screened Eurovision dramatics at any rate. Disappointingly, not a great deal of variety was on offer here.
To his credit, Laurence does his best to look earnest and regularly wipes away a lop of long curly hair in a way that Wordsworth or Keats might have done mid-poem. An attempt to add drama to music that really doesn’t seem to have any itself. Steady keyboards and steady beat – safe and, well a bit boring.
The only variance comes when a technical problem cuts out the speakers completely for a few minutes. Duncan Laurence does have an excellent voice and he does have charisma, but hopefully, he won’t be straitjacketed by such music forever. By the time ‘Arcade’ winds down the set, I’m thankful that local girl Makeda didn’t make it to the Final of Eurovision. The pressure would have been on to be musically bland and she is far better than that. Maybe Duncan Laurence is too. I hope he gets to control his next musical moves himself and put that excellent voice to more productive use.
James Bay first appeared on the radar of possible pop superstars as far back as 2015 when he was a nominee in the prestigious Brit Awards under ‘British Breakthrough Act’. This was on the promise shown by his 2014 single ‘Hold Back the River’, which went platinum, and debut studio album ‘Chaos and the Calm’ 2015 which flew straight into the charts at nr 1 and has since been certified double platinum in the UK.
Last years ‘Electric Light’ is his second full album release, so this really is make-or-break time now for the 29-year-old from Hitchin.
Clearly James Bay knows how to get the music together in a recording studio, but how about on the road? Well, that shouldn’t be a problem either. Since his days showing up to play at open-mike nights in Brighton as a student, Bay has gone out as support act on the World Tours of Taylor Swift, The Rolling Stones and, more recently, Ed Sheeran. The gigs don’t get any bigger than that!
I try not to let the teeny allure get in the way of my musical judgement, but I do notice that, despite the musical plaudits previously mentioned, I don’t see too many seasoned Rock concert-goers around me. I do see a lot of teenage girls with silvery-coloured cellphone covers held aloft and signs draped over the front barricade declaring enduring love though. One even asks cheekily if they can be his tour photographer.
Down to the music then. I had no previous knowledge of James Bay or his songs. I was almost expecting (hoping for?) an English Gary Clarke Jr. It was sadly not to be, but time is very much on the young Brits side.
This is clearly a man who loves guitars and there were regular changes during the show. Clearly the favourite though was a cherry red Epiphone archtop electric. We were well into the set though before we got to hear any serious playing – a short but enjoyable solo on ‘Let it Go’, the chorus of which had a good majority of the 3000 people in the audience singing happily along – too early for cigarette lighters or cellphone lights though unfortunately.
It was only when the sun went down and with the LED lights blazing far too brightly behind the band which made looking directly at the stage a daunting prospect that the suddenly shadowy figure of Bay and his fellow guitarist joined forces to throw out some interesting riffs (I couldn’t locate the name of Bay’s band members, so excuse me for not name-checking someone who deserved it on the night). Best number of all in this regard was a marathon-length ‘Hold Back The River’. This song has one of those magical intros and riffs that classic songs possess so James Bay already has one for the songbooks for sure. A lot of the guitar playing seemed to meander around though (check out the word ‘noodling’ in your dictionaries for a better explanation).
‘Fade Out’ has a nice chunky and funky riff and ‘Get It While You Can’ has a Springsteeny ‘Born To Run’ style of urgency in it. The best songs generally were the slow ones, and I particularly liked the simplicity of brand new ‘Break my Heart Right’. Originally played on piano, I’m thinking it was a pity that Bay didn’t bring a piano along to give the set more depth. He also didn’t bring along any CD’s – preferring instead to have a large and varied collection of T-shirts in the merchandise tent. Nothing wrong with this in itself, of course, the audience were largely Spotifiers and T-shirt wearers. It does seem to make the music appear secondary though in priorities. On the subject of which, 90 minutes seemed to be almost played out on an egg timer. With twenty minutes of possible playing time left, an encore wouldn’t have been so hard, or? Just time to pose for a selfie with backs to the audience and they were gone. Curiously enough, after an entire evening of ‘new’ music, I went home with the only cover song played all evening still running in my head John Fogerty’s ‘Proud Mary’. Even more curiously, it was Fogerty’s original version played here on this very stage only weeks ago, and not the James Bay version that I was humming. Still, I had the impression that James Bay does care about his music, and that he may well yet prove to be a musical heavyweight as well as eye-candy for the girls.