James Bay took to the O2 Forum in Kentish Town last night in the run-up to the release of his third album, which follows 2018’s Electric Light.
No doubt there’s been plenty of post-pandemic shows celebrating the fact we’re all able to convene and dance together again. (You have to wonder just when we’ll all get over it). For James Bay, that wonderment still hasn’t let up as he continues his string of shows with his full band for the first time in almost three years, including a performance last night at Kentish Town’s O2 Forum.
But before all that, Kevin Garratt, hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, soothed us with his luscious vocals, his demeanour cordial and warm; a well-chosen opener with an evident class, and one that wouldn’t upstage the main event.
After a reasonably lengthy interval, the man of the hour appeared, the silhouette of him donning his signature hat emphasised by the minimal lighting. This would be, you felt within just a few minutes, a well-oiled show despite the long absence since him and his band had all played together. The opener, ‘Give Me The Reason’, a teaser track ahead of the forthcoming album, gave us plenty of reason in fact to dedicate ourselves to the ensuing show.
“Let’s pretend it’s a Friday night,” James asked of his audience, whose sense of day had been thrown by the week’s bank holiday. Sure enough, this was an atmosphere he was able to conjure after a few songs.
We would be treated to somethings old, and somethings new — from an artist who not only used lockdown to perfect new material but had a kid to boot. ‘If You Ever Want To Be In Love’ was one such track the adorning crowd were already well-versed in, and was a particular early highlight. ‘Let It Go’ was also a hit, its first few chords met with a rapturous cheer. It wasn’t just Friday night energy that was created, but that of the early evening of a festival.
With a shimmy and a shake, it wouldn’t be long before the jacket was off, and we were in the metaphysical hands of a top tier performer, with a strength to his performance that seemed to defy his skeletal frame.
At one point, James had to confess he was in love: with his new-born, Ada, his partner, Lucy, and being back with us. “I can’t tell you how good it is to be here,” he proclaimed. ‘One Life’, a more upbeat track than most of his oeuvre, captured this the most, imploring us all “to live it”.
James joked, too, about the number of guitars he possessed – though his family, he told us, whilst admitting its slight cringeness, was all he needed. Sure enough, there was a guitar change with almost every track.
Yet this was not without good reason. A fine vocalist, James Bay has that rare ability of being able to make a guitar sing, of playing it with such a balance of power and delicacy that it seems to emit a soul. ‘When We Were on Fire’ gave way at one stage to a mesmeric Santana-style guitar solo that demonstrated this quality best.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for James Bay, though. (And it would make for dull art if it had). The challenging period of the pandemic caused some mental challenges for a singer who didn’t know when he’d next perform. ‘Everybody Needs Someone’, we were told, was an ode to that – and it will be one that equally sits on his forthcoming album.
There was a final uplift, though, in the track through which many of us have become familiar with James Bay. ‘Hold Back the River’ was as clever a conclusion as the opening was simply because of that nifty of all closing tricks: it left us wanting more.
Thankfully, his new album – the official date for which is due to be released soon – will be giving us just that. And, fingers crossed we’re fully in the clear of covid now, there’ll be a lot more James Bay gigs to go with it.