It’s a hot one this evening and Manchester’s Albert Hall is getting fuller by the minute, exacerbating these sultry conditions. For an artist with only a couple of albums under his belt, the anticipation for James Bay is at feverish levels; there are several false alarms when the house music fades and a premature scream erupts somewhere near the front of the stage. Moments later, when the lights eventually do drop, the collective welcome is deafening.
It’s fair to say that the new album demonstrates a daring shift in direction. Going platinum and breaking the USA with debut Chaos and the Calm suggests that not resting on laurels could have been a rash thing to do. Then James Bay walks on to the Albert Hall stage and crunches through the smoky menace of ‘Wasted on Each Other’! The reinvention is not just a musical one; gone is the long hair and hipster hats and he stylishly prowls the stage in a glittering gold jacket looking every bit the stadium rock star he clearly has the desire and the potential to be. If Chaos and the Calm possessed an air of reflective introspection then Electric Light suggests that these more introvert qualities have evolved into something bolder and more confident.
‘Pink Lemonade’ is the album’s natural single; uptempo and seductive, it is a thrillingly raw early highlight and it is this more unrefined quality that helps to generate the most satisfying moments of the evening. The new record has been accused of being too safe, too generic, all nicely packaged for the riches an American audience will provide. Whilst this will ultimately allow him to prosper on both sides of the Atlantic, the live arena will not camouflage a masquerader. This rousing opening salvo allows Bay to demonstrate vital rock star qualities with aplomb; the thumping drive of ‘Craving’ follows as if to hammer the point home.
Albert Hall is quite a compact venue but the vocal, largely female fans make it feel like we’re in an arena. This is surely where James Bay is heading and the singer steps back from the mic, allowing his enthusiastic fans to take on the vocal duties of several singalong choruses. Weaker moments arrive in the form of ‘Wild Love’ which is the kind of slick R&B, gospel track you’d expect to hear from all manner of corporate American stars and it is in these moments, when he is preaching to his adoring fans, that it does start to feel just a bit too contrived for maximum exposure. Thankfully, these moments are followed by a return to the more unpredictable, jagged tones of ‘Sugar Drunk High’ which again allows Bay to demonstrate his protean qualities as a singer and thrillingly skilful guitarist.
The ecclesiastical characteristics of Albert Hall are the perfect setting for the preachy ‘Us’ and if this is the road the Hitchen singer-songwriter wants to travel down, he will no doubt find an adoring audience more than happy to take that journey with him. However, it is during the rough and ready ‘Best Fake Smile’ when the evening demonstrates the true potential of this James Bay overhaul. This older song sparks into life with a flurry of brutal guitar, sparking and crackling dangerously as Bay generates the effervescent tone of this anthemic track, now imbued with a sparkling new energy. This is followed by the ubiquitous ‘Hold Back the River’ which maintains the joyful, interactive qualities of the evening, and this is when this show is ultimately at its best.
Photos: Iain Fox – see more in our gallery here.