On the 25th November 2013, London-based record label and gig promoter Communion put on a gig in the basement of the Slaughtered Lamb pub, Clerkenwell. Headlining for the first time was a young man called James Bay. Tonight, three years later, with a double-platinum debut album under his belt, Bay tried to re-enact that occasion in the same sweaty basement in honour of Communion’s 10th birthday. The set list is more-or-less identical, the accompaniment from co-writer Jon Green is the same and the price of the beer hasn’t changed that much either.
Filling the support slot tonight is Will Bloomfield, frontman of 4-piece band Port Isla. Presumably he’s in a similar situation to that which Bay was a few years ago, waiting for that big break. He certainly has the talent: a decent voice that occupies a place in that alt-rock prairie and a fair songwriting ability. Unfortunately he’s fighting a losing battle tonight against the crowd, who are just here to see Bay, oblivious that they might be ignoring another Bay in the making. He sings half a dozen songs, including ‘Volcano’, ‘Heaven’, ‘Burn’ and finishing with ‘The Light’, even getting the audience partially involved in a mini call-and-response right at the death.
James Bay mounts the stage, looking cool in his trademark wide-brimmed hat. He comes across as some Johnny Depp/Russell Brand hybrid, instantly likeable. He’s very natural in front of the crowd, engaging them immediately, reminding them about Communion’s birthday and the part they played in propelling him to success. He opens with ‘Craving’, the same song that opens his album, The Chaos and the Calm, and follows up with ‘When we were on fire’. The audience are already singing along at this point, and Bay jokily gives them permission to continue, which they do into the next song, the extremely catchy ‘If you ever want to be in love’. Even though it’s just Bay and Jon Green on stage, with a guitar and keyboard, their combined voices and sounds give such a richness to the songs. If you weren’t watching them perform, you would easily say that you were listening to a studio recording.
Bay brings the tempo down with a few older songs: ‘Hear your heart’ from his second EP and ‘Clocks go forward’, from his first release. Even from these older songs, the quality oozes. He mentions how pleased he is playing songs which aren’t from The Chaos and the Calm, which he has been touring heavily of late. Turning back to that record, he sings ‘Let it go’ solo, on the guitar. His voice fills the silent room. Very different to when Will Bloomfield opened up the night. Tuning his guitar, Bay picks out the notes to that old Elvis classic, ‘Can’t help falling in love’, and the crowd just run with it, singing the chorus. Bay smiles and lets them have their moment before carrying on with ‘Scars’. So composed.
Closing out the set, Bay steers towards the singalong songs ‘Move together’ and ‘Need the Sun to break’ before a funky version of the Beatles’ ‘Something in the way’. The crowd are thoroughly enjoying themselves now. The final song is identical to that from 3 years ago, in tribute… ‘Stealing Cars’ from his debut EP and also a bonus track on The Chaos and the Calm. Of course at this point we haven’t heard the epic crowd-pleaser and phenomenal song, ‘Hold back the river’… and that’s because it didn’t exist 3 years ago. In fact, Bay recounts the story: the day after that gig 3 years ago, he went into the studio with Ivor Novello award-winning writer Iain Archer, and penned the words of ‘Hold back the river’. Clearly the audience would not let him leave without singing it for them, and so, for his encore, he delights us with HBTR, which lifts the roof.
Words & photos: Paul Woods (@paulwoodsphoto)