LIVE REVIEW: James Bay, Hyde & Beast @ Pop Recs, Sunderland (13.4.15) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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What should be a momentous night for Pop Recs started off with a heavy tinge of sadness. Though it wasn’t the most well-kept secret in the world, Heartstring Dave Harper began the night by announcing that the building Pop Recs has been occupying had recently been sold off by the council, making the future of the community enterprise uncertain. It’s difficult to believe that a small venue that can attract one of the biggest acts in the country at the moment is going through a crisis; James Bay would spend some of his set encouraging his adoring audience to help Pop Recs out with their plight. I couldn’t help but think that if more people would turn up on a regular basis, like at this sell-out show, then Sunderland might not be on the verge of losing one of its biggest cultural assets.

Bay is apparently a massive fan of Mackem duo Hyde & Beast, so at the very least he has good musical taste. I had a very obscured view of Neil Bassett, Dave Hyde et al thanks to the heaving crowd and my own affliction of being tiny. No amount of teetering was going to give me a decent look at the stage. It didn’t really matter too much though; Hyde & Beast’s brand of extremely retro pop-rock, bordering on glam, was so infectious that I ended up in my own 70s-inspired world anyway. It’s difficult to avoid the obvious comparison with T-Rex; the group constantly sound like they’ve been possessed by the spirit of Marc Bolan, which is to say they’ve been touched by the hand of brilliance. Whatever tinge of sadness I held after Harper’s opening announcement was quickly dissipated by hearing the ludicrously catchy Keep Moving and Open Your Heart.

After playing at Newcastle Uni’s Student Union the night before, James Bay’s vocal chords were apparently quite rusty, though he hid it remarkably well. He chatted to the audience comfortably and affably in-between songs and his fragile, fluttering voice didn’t seem any different to on record; whatever magical green tea they were serving him backstage had obviously done the trick. Still, Bay was only able to play a total of six songs from his debut album The Chaos and the Calm.

He started with two acoustic tracks, a brave decision under the circumstances. His guitar picking is incredibly deft and intricate, which is unfortunately undermined by the over-simplicity of his songs. Like many singer-songwriters of a certain age, he likes to sing about love and loss, which is fine if it’s done in an interesting way. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything particularly grabbing or unique about Bay’s lyrics or his vocal delivery. At the risk of being lynched, these opening tracks reminded me of Ed Sheeran’s earlier acoustic noodlings.

His guitar picking is incredibly deft and intricate, which is unfortunately undermined by the over-simplicity of his songs

Still, his fans clearly adored him and hung on his every word and note. When Bay introduced his band to the stage and stated that he couldn’t go without playing his biggest hit, the room erupted into a wave of excited squeals. For the record, Hold Back The River is by no means a bad song and I don’t dislike it. It is, however, a safe ballad masquerading as an indie-rock song. Unfortunately for me, that also makes it something of an irritating earworm. Bay did his best to sound impassioned and, to be fair, I thought his lack of vocal power on the chorus could be put down to his disintegrating vocal chords.

Hyde & Beast joined Bay on stage for two final cover versions, John Lennon’s Jealous Guy and The Band’s The Weight. Jealous Guy has always been my personal favourite Lennon song and while I was sceptical that Bay could pull it off when I heard the first few notes, the decision to turn it into a bluesy, almost country-tinged affair helped to win me over. Indeed, these two songs were probably my favourite out of the whole of Bay’s set, not because Hyde & Beast were with him but because Bay’s style of guitar playing and singing suits the blues. He even seemed visibly more comfortable performing these tracks than his own songs (at least, whenever I was able to catch a glimpse). This closing duo of tracks convinced me that there might be more to Bay than first meets the eye, if only he’d be willing to diversify his sound more and be a bit braver.

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