LIVE REVIEW: James Bay at O2 Academy, Leeds

It’s been a whirlwind of a comeback for James Bay, after a few years of not being able to travel and tour, 2022 has seen the show back on the road in many more ways than one. Never to rest on his laurels, the multi-hyphenated musician released his long-anticipated third studio album (it reached top 5 in the UK charts,) toured the UK thrice over, toured the US and Europe also, and just recently sold out a night at London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall for the new year within the space of a weekend. A multitude of career highs and personal highlights have filled Bay’s life this past twelve months, it just goes to show that time away does make the heart grow fonder. And love for Bay’s music is more prevalent than ever.

The final night of the Leap tour on this EU/UK run—which has surely been successful with all dates deemed appropriately sold-out, this night in Leeds was no different, packed to the rafters with eagerness for the reveal of the man in the hat. And it was a big night. The set list, itself, was the longest seen on the tour thus far. It was indeed a celebration, both because, this show had been postponed due to illness a few weeks prior, and because it was the final show they’ll play of 2022 in the UK.

The introduction is flashy, ‘Best Fake Smile‘ plays with an extended intro. It is there to set in motion a rush of blood that will rise and fall throughout the show. “Last night of the tour… Leeds, I need you loud,” Bay is the constant showman, he has studied the greats and learned how to make that his own, honed his style and rides the wave. He talks like everyone in the room is in the same club. It’s a type of from-the-heart informality that feels personal, personable and cosy; it’s a form of group connection that’s rooted in conversational terms, even if it is quite uniform in its delivery. It’s how a person transforms into a star. It’s why fandom exists. It’s how icons are born. And Bay has that je ne sais quoi. That special trait that is so hard to bottle or define. A one of a kind talent.

And he surrounds himself with fellow equally talented musicians, the current band is one of the finest ensembles touring at present. Each member brings something unique to the ensemble, adding to the warmth of the whole: Katie Dove Dixon on keys and BVs, Tom Peel on bass/BVs, Luke Bullard on guitar/BVs, and Don Hep on drums. They certainly make the good vibrations roll. And on one of the newer tracks, ‘Endless Summer Nights,’ their contributions are loud and clear: the pounding spark of Hep’s drums combined with Dixon’s backing vocals offer light to Bay’s shade. It’s a wonderfully realised moment.

One thing to pick up on when the songs are played live, is Bay’s voice. The beauty of it. And the ruggedness of it. And the raw quality he asserts in those emotional notes. The embellishments are great touches, little flourishes here and there that tell you that this is a live show. It is something that isn’t reproduced on record quite so much, it’s all found in the moment, saved for the stage. Another reason why James Bay’s live shows are so well attended, they take the music to new places. And isn’t that why we venture out and spend money on experiences, because we crave to be part of something and live offers exactly that. An opportunity to interact with a favourite musician, in a space, with others.

The way some of the songs are grouped in the set list, seems to suggest a correlation. That, every group of songs sit together in a mood. The show mummers romantic notes with the combination of ‘Endless Summer Nights,’ ‘Give Me The Reason‘ and ‘If You Ever Want to Be in Love,’ before moving into a headier sex appeal upon the kick of ‘Wanderlust‘ and ‘Peer Pressure‘. ‘Us‘ ushers in Bay’s ‘classics’ section, with ‘Let It Go‘ and ‘One Life‘ following—these are songs which feel grander than most of his other music, because they have wider scope and the ability to resonate in much deeper and profound ways due to the fact that they speak directly with a sense of vulnerability underpinning them. Then comes the acoustic section; part is solo, part is stripped back. There’s a fan request in there, a new song, and a trio setup, and opening act (and friend of the tour) Kevin Garrett returns to the stage to play in the headline set. This part is full of choral harmonics, natural ambiance, and band dynamics. It really does satisfy a lot of the reasons why James Bay is such a ‘musician’s musician’. It’s the stuff of legend, straight out of your favourite live concert performance DVD. And presumably Bay is just as meticulous about his live show as he is with every other aspect of his career, and maybe that’s why this theory could ring true. 

The finale is fixed on technique and spotlighting the guitar. ‘When We Were On Fire‘ has a huge solo in there, it covers more aspects of Bay’s musical personality with some room for personal inflection. ‘Pink Lemonade‘ treads a finer line of guarded emotion whilst being an outright bop. ‘Get Out While You Can‘ and ‘Craving‘ take it back to the beginning, with a headstrong confidence brimming with euphoria and lust for life. For anybody out there dreaming big, these are the songs that will fuel your fire. For the encore, ‘Scars‘ casts us back into emotional vulnerability and transitions from solo electric to full band panorama. Sensationally done. ‘Hold Back the River‘ offers big Americana, building from a simple (but outstandingly catchy) chant to reach the tallest peak of the night.

Bay’s energy is brilliant throughout and shines brighter than anything else in the room. But it’s not without every other person contributing to the whole that a show like this can fly so high, and he knows that, which is why he truly is one of the very best.

Leap, James Bay’s third studio album is out now – available to Stream/Purchase here.

Photo Credit: Mikee Downes (@mikee.d.manc)

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Charlotte Holroyd
Editor, Creator and Founder of Bitter Sweet Symphonies. A lover of music and cinema, who's constantly attending gigs and in search of a great experience.

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