Independent Venue Week rolls in around this time every year, where the breaking yawns of a new year are gifted some sweet relief by the comings of a celebration, of the UK’s grassroots music venues. Together with the great Can You CIC It? and local promoters and venue owners up and down the country, IVW lights up those dreary early weeks with a glorious thing called live music. And as a special treat this IVW, they scored a tour with James Bay. Yes, that there megastar, sad song crooner, James Bay. The subtle-not-so-subtly titled tour, ‘New Songs, New Stories: A Solo Tour’ makes, for those lucky enough to have booked themselves a spot, a marvelous return for the singer-songwriter back to the rooms whence he came.
It’s a homecoming of sorts. A calm that separates the chaos, you might say (mind the pun). And after these past two years-plus away from the stage, we think a reprieve was in order. And so does the theme continue on, on this night in Manchester, in contrast to the chaotic weather raging just outside venue doors (the UK is currently experiencing somewhat of a storm season), the show offers safety like a warm hug.
The intimacy that Manchester’s Night & Day venue provides is unparalleled, it’s just big enough to start a racket but closely packed so if a pin dropped, you would most certainly hear it. Just like all attending were to experience, it’s impossible not to miss the same person confessing “I love you” to Mr Bay over and over again. And why not? Admire the man who writes impeccably catchy, emotionally aware songs. I would. I do.
And across 80 or so minutes, that’s the gist of what we’re treated to: An assortment of beautifully fashioned, handwritten odes that talk of everyday moments but are delivered with a romance that only James Bay could craft. He plays through the old favourites just as well as the new offerings (which already have a fanbase – and this is even before they’re officially released – as Bay points out himself, this isn’t something to take for granted and he humbly shares his appreciation for those in the room who have already learnt the words so quickly and efficiently).
After time one could forget just how remarkable these songs are, until you’re met by them in a live setting. Especially in this setting. ‘Best Fake Smile’ – a deep album cut, never a single, closes the main set and receives just as much love as Bay’s most popular hits, i.e. ‘Let it Go,’ or even, ‘If You Ever Want to Be in Love’. It’s an amazing gift to be in the position that Bay is, where he can safely play to a crowd of 200, and then the next week, jump on a festival stage playing to tens of thousands. But this isn’t overnight success, he’s worked for the privilege. And too right, the man has earned it. During the little moments of this headline set, he shows us a side to himself that maybe isn’t quite obvious for a global superstar or isn’t usually given scope to share during a ‘formal’ touring spell, because after all, this night’s show is just James and his guitar up there, no shiny lights or fancy production, just the songs and their creator. This arrangement gives more insight into the musician’s process, revealing tidbits of information every now and then in between songs to a captivated audience way before the many will hear these stories. It’s a clever way to preview a new record, that’s for sure.
And these new writings are very much in-line with Bay’s signature heart-on-sleeve, largely autobiographical work to date. He says himself that these new songs are his most hopeful and optimistic yet, even though they also do speak of struggles and tribulation. But ain’t that the bread and butter? If it works, does it need to change? All jokes aside, there has been plenty of progression in Bay’s writing, it’s inherently clear. Here is a songwriter that is incredibly perceptive to the human experience, his songs may be often personal but it is because he explores that itch and digs deep that any one person can relate, and does relate to his words. They’re speaking of universal experiences in life, love and suffering. And it’s also not a hindrance that they’re set to gorgeously weaving melodies and favour engaging guitar finesse. To that note, Bay shows off his guitar skill amply and ably with a variety of different models showcased and different techniques applied. If you’re ever left questioning whether he does it all, yes James Bay, indeed, does it all.
As this tour enacts a return to the singer’s’ roots, the hat is back. There was a time when the fedora outshone even James Bay, but not anymore. He has been careful to disengage from the typecasting attached to his early career, and now the music is the main attraction. As so it should stand. And with a song like ‘Hold Back the River’ in one’s wheelhouse to pull out as a closing memento, who needs to be remembered for anything more?
Independent Venue Week 2022 runs UK wide from 31st Jan – 6th Feb. James Bay’s New Songs New Stories solo tour continues in Leeds at Brudenell Social Club, Tuesday 1st Feb, and culminates in Cardiff at Clwb Ifor Bach on Sunday, 6th Feb. For more information, head here.