REVIEW: James Bay @ O2 Academy Leicester

Saturday night saw BRIT Award winning singer-songwriter James Bay bring his Give Me The Reason Tour to the University’s O2 Academy. 

After opener Kevin Garrett treated us to a stripped down acoustic set including a gorgeous cover of Bon Iver’s ‘Skinny Love’, Bay took to the stage with the rip-roaring fan favourite ‘Best Fake Smile’. This was an inspired choice for an opener — while never released as a single, the song’s boundless energy and supremely catchy chorus made for a promising start to the night. 

Between songs, Bay ruminated on the effects of the pandemic, and how happy he was to be back after a two-year absence from touring. It’s something you hear at every gig nowadays, yet it somehow felt all the more sincere here, thanks to his decidedly charming on-stage persona. This was exemplified during the sweet (if a little cheesy) love song ‘One Life’, an unreleased track from his forthcoming as-yet-untitled album, performed after a genuinely touching dedication to his partner and their new-born daughter. While these quieter moments were unfortunately sometimes undercut by fans who’d perhaps had a little much to drink, they were nevertheless a reminder of the humanity behind the performer, emphasising the emotional vulnerability in his songwriting.                                

Another unexpected highlight came in the form of ‘When We Were On Fire’. Despite being a relatively unknown deep cut from his 2014 debut The Chaos and The Calm, it provided Bay with an excuse to show off his impressive skills as a guitarist, reaching a peak with a stunning extended solo.

The high point of the show, though, was his heart-on-sleeve performance of his smash-hit ballad ‘Let It Go’. The song’s stripped back instrumental lends itself perfectly to a singalong, and the audience took full advantage. Despite its melancholy subject matter, there was something truly joyous in the sound of the entire sold-out venue singing it together after two years of living in relative isolation. 

Credit should also go to the staging here — while simple, it was undoubtedly effective. Throughout the show, the stage was illuminated by a large circular light positioned directly behind the microphone, often throwing the songwriter into silhouette and highlighting his iconic wide-brimmed hat.  

Of course, there was only one song that could end the set — his biggest hit to date, the anthemic Grammy nominated single ‘Hold Back the River’. The first notes of its gentle opening guitar riff were all it took to draw a rapturous reaction from the audience, and the song began a slow build towards its powerful climax and with it, a farewell that felt as if it came all too soon. 

Image: Jake Haseldine

Harry Featherston is a second-year English student and LSM’s Chief Arts and Culture Editor. You can find him on Twitter here.

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