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CityFolk Review: James Bay

By Terry Steeves on September 18, 2016

Photo by Terry Steeves

Photo by Terry Steeves

CityFolk Festival got off to an electrifying start on Thursday night, as every square inch of the park’s Great Lawn filled up to see UK sensation James Bay in his first ever Ottawa performance. Under the light of a full moon, Bay and his very talented band (piano, bass, guitar, and drums) serenaded and socked the crowd with an array of music that delivered soft and strong doses of rock, soul, blues, and pop.

Throughout the performance, it was clear to see and hear the solid fan base this young man has garnered, as voices rang out the words to every song he played. In just a few short years, James Bay has made global waves with his skilfully written compositions and poignant lyrics that convey a passion for life and love, rooted in the ultimate and underlying elements of believing in and being oneself.

Hailing from the small market town of Hitchin, England, James Bay grew up listening to music from his parents’ album collection, and became influenced by the usual cast of classic rock, blues, and soul artists like Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and the magic of Motown. He cites “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos as the song that triggered his first desire to pick up a guitar, and so at age 11, Bay began learning licks on his father’s guitar.

By his teens, he was writing his own songs, inspired by songwriting artists like Bill Withers, and would later immerse himself in musical studies at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music. Outside of school, he lived and breathed music in a constant string of busking and open mics, five nights a week. But it would be a YouTube video of him performing in a London pub – shot by an audience member – that would spark the attention of A&R execs at Republic Records. A week later, he signed with the label, and the whirlwind began, resulting in the release of his debut album, Chaos and the Calm, released in the first half of 2015. Now, just having celebrated his 26th birthday, James Bay has set out on a North American tour, with stops including Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Radio City Music Hall in NYC, and The Fillmore in Detroit yet to come.

Bay and his band wasted no time as they exploded onto the stage with the rock heavy “Collide”. Right away, I was moved by the music’s infectious groove, Bay’s natural-born stage presence, and the extraordinary give-and-take that began instantly with the audience, which remained intact throughout the 90 minute performance. “When We Were On Fire” was alive with catchy rhythms and flowing melody, which brought to mind similar well-structured songwriting stylings like those of Richard Marx.

“If You Ever Want To Be In Love” got the crowd jumping, with its very Michael Jackson heated drive, and a passion that rang out in Bay’s wonderfully crisp and textured vocals. At his request, the audience chimed in with the song’s anthemic chorus… the first of many more crowd participation moments that night. “Need The Sun To Break” tugged at the heartstrings with its tender intro, followed by bursts by the full band into every chorus, which gave the song its uplifting energy… another element in all Bay’s material.

Photo by Terry Steeves

Photo by Terry Steeves

Cheering soared with the recognizable chord at the beginning of one of Bay’s hits, “Let It Go,” a song about the challenge of not losing one’s identity in a relationship. Again, I was reeled in immediately with its bright and passionate flavours of pop and soul, and found myself and my voice swept away with the rest of the audience.

Standing solo, and armed with his red 1966 Epiphone Century, Bay played a lovely chord progression from “Can’t Help Falling In Love” as an intro to his next song, “Scars,” looking and sounding every bit like the classic troubadour. The song broke into full gear when the band kicked in, which brought an exciting contrast of strength and energy. Similarly in “Sparks,” what started as a hand-clapping jazz/blues blend of rhythm chugged into a surge of heavy bass and organ for some rocking blues goodness that was jaw-dropping delicious. His prowess as a full-fledged musician was apparent, as he plucked out a complicated sequence and simultaneously sang a melody that bore an alternate rhythm.

The energy continued to build with more positively charged songs like “Best Fake Smile,” during which Bay showed his rock ‘n roll rebel colours and strapped on his Gibson electric to strum out a fiery intro. The band followed suit by joining in full throttle, and the song ebbed and flowed in a spirited Springsteen-like vibe.   

More of his classic influences came through with a riveting performance of Ike and Tina Turner’s fiery “Proud Mary,” which rendered me incapable of keeping my voice at bay. “Hold Back The River,” Bay’s most recent mega hit, was saved for the final song of the night. He played a searing blues intro and then, like the song’s title would suggest, held back for a moment to savour the silence, followed by the ensuing rush of love felt from a roaring crowd. The song resumed in its rhythmic and melodic vibrancy and whisked the audience away to the song’s message that strong currents of life can sometimes carry us off to another place. This river is one that is full of optimism, passion, and a clear zest for life that comes out loud and clear in the music of James Bay.