James Bay At The Olympia Theatre – Review And Photos
Poor James Bay. It’s hard to recall many new artists over the last few years to have been on the receiving end of such a merciless critical mauling from the UK press. Having topped numerous ‘Hot for 2015’ lists at the turn of the year, the media knives have been out for the Hertfordshire singer ever since. Several broadsheet newspapers have snorted with derision, dismissing him as ‘a male model at an open mic night’, another suggested he was ‘the sound of UK pop culture grinding to a halt…the latest in an endless stream of lowest-common-denominator trad singer-songwriter money-spinners’. A tad harsh perhaps? If it wasn’t for his worldwide hits, huge selling chart-topping album, sold out world tour, pin-up good looks and devoted female following, you’d almost feel sorry for him. Almost. Much of the cynicism surrounding Bay stems from the employment of co-writers on large swathes of his output. Fellow blues-rocker Jake Bugg also utilises co-writers on his material but has never received the same amount of flak. Snow Patrol collaborator Iain Archer is credited alongside Bay as a songwriter on several tracks on debut album Chaos and the Calm. Other writing credits also include Paul Barry, known for his work with Ronan Keating and Britney Spears. Seen by many detractors as a cleaned up, Disney-fied version of Hozier (though Bay’s music lacks the heart of darkness that permeates the Wicklow man’s work) the comparisons aren’t without merit. Both possess show stopping voices, both have long flowing locks to make their significant female fanbases swoon, and both incorporate elements of blues and soul music into their work. With such press negativity aimed at the 25 year old, he arrives tonight with something of a point to prove.
As the lights dim, the stage is obscured by a white curtain with only Bay’s silhouette lit up, complete with his trademark fedora hat. As the curtain falls he charges to the mic and cracks out the opening notes of blues-rocker ‘Collide’. This high-octane opening is followed by the pounding ‘Craving’, with Bay kicking against the drudgery of 9 to 5 life: ‘Walking through the traffic on a Monday, in the town I grew up… Everyone’s life is the same as yesterday, just like the ticking of clocks’. Album track ‘If You Ever Want To Be In Love’ gets a huge reaction, prompting the first of many singalongs. The volume of the audience is notable, particularly on the lesser-known album cuts and EP tracks. They know all of Bay’s material inside-out much to his appreciation and he never misses an opportunity to encourage their singing throughout. As the opening notes of latest single ‘Let it Go’ are met with more deafening screams, it becomes clear what a talented guitarist Bay is. While employing a four-piece band, complete with a second guitarist, he takes on most of tonight’s lead guitar work himself with some gorgeous finger-picking and bluesey strumming.
Modern music audiences can’t seem to get enough of the ‘old-soul trapped in a young man’s body’ type of male solo artists. From George Ezra and Paolo Nutini, to the aforementioned Hozier, music fans are connecting with rawer, less polished music as of late, which goes some way to explaining the hysteria surrounding James Bay since his emergence two years ago. Having first witnessed Bay during his solo support slot with Irish band Kodaline in this venue back in 2013, his biggest asset was immediately clear. His vocals are a stunning mix of velvety smooth whispered low notes, and passionately roared highs. Nowhere is this clearer than on the delicate ‘Scars’. Played solo for the opening three minutes in hushed, revered silence, it shows Bay’s phenomenal raw talent in its purest form. Following the biggest reaction of the night, he charmingly tells of how he played the song on that support slot back in 2013. He explains that his label and management weren’t keen on the song and how the reaction that night in Dublin encouraged him to keep the track. A wise-move as it differs from much of his other material and highlights the very best aspects of him as an artist. EP track ‘Running’ exudes the chilled out soulful vibes of Sam Cooke and Bill Withers. Interestingly both songs (two of tonight’s standout moments) are written solely by Bay, putting to rest many of the questions about his creative integrity.
The lowest point of the night arrives however, with a cover of Alicia Keys ‘If I Ain’t Got You’. An impressive interpretation of the song descends into farce in its closing stages. First Bay takes the opportunity to launch into a 3 minute guitar solo, that builds and builds, proving to anyone left in doubt just how great a guitarist he really is. An excellent performance winds down with the song having already exceeded six minutes, before he invites his keyboardist to noodle around for another three minutes before inviting his guitarist do the same afterwards. It’s an unnecessary, time consuming, and self-indulgent move which tests the patience of those in attendance. While the skill of the musicians onstage is exemplary, this kind of excessive improvisation is usually reserved for underground blues clubs at 1am. Tonight is not the time or place, as several audience members check their watches. Some even make their way to the exits. The extended jam would probably still be plodding on right now had Bay not yet played his breakthrough smash. When its opening notes finally arrive, all is forgiven and he can barely be heard over the Olympia crowd. ‘Hold Back The River’ is the song which brought the headliner to mainstream attention earlier this year. A terrific hook-laden pop gem, he belts it out with gusto before taking a bow and exiting stage left with his band in tow.
Tonight, with all eyes on the headline act, it was difficult to take your eyes off Bay. His tall, slender frame covered every inch of the stage and then some. You realise this was a man born to perform, and the stages and crowds are only likely to grow ever-bigger given his meteoric rise over the past two years. Never mind what the critics say, with an impressive collection of songs already gathered, a voice as good as you’re likely to hear, and a truly commanding stage presence, James Bay is the real deal, and, on tonight’s showing, is well on his way to becoming a superstar. Marvellous.
Photos by Anamaria Meiu
Review by Gary O’Donnell