James Bay | The Hotel Cafe (Los Angeles, CA) | June 10, 2014 |
With merely a guitar between a singer and his or her audience, 50 minutes can seem like an eternity. And likewise for an audience watching said artist and his/her guitar (a.k.a. “wake me up when it’s over”). The watchword is communication: that exchange where information is given, received and acknowledged and it’s to be taken seriously – never lightly – especially if you fancy yourself a singer/songwriter-type musician. It can be a tricky road to navigate; career-wise it can even be dangerous. Fortunately, this is not an issue for one of the UK’s brightest talents: James Bay.
After strolling on stage more like a stage-hand than the main attraction, James effortlessly and elegantly powered through with three songs from his latest EP, Let It Go. By the time he reached the title track, that’s when I noticed what was missing: Talking.
Now it’s common for a performer to capture an audience at Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles as the venue specializes in showcasing music of a more intimate and personal nature: singer/songwriters. So the audience actually focusing on the music being made is quite the norm. But this was one of those blessed Hotel Cafe moments when the action on stage captivated the room to the point of blissful, respectful and emotional silence – and it was a sold out show. The first time I’d ever witnessed such a thing at Hotel Cafe was about six years ago when Alain Johannes, his 12-string guitar, the blistering dexterity of his fingers and the high wail of his voice were sanctifying the room. It was frighteningly powerful, somewhat holy and even the back bar where glasses should have been clinking and orders loudly taken was silent. What James wields (if what he traded in were a weapon) is that alternate strain of catch and hold. Just as enveloping to the heart and soul, but instead of encouraging pure and celestial reverence, it (or rather, he) evokes those potent, if not seductive core feelings of love, loss and longing that inevitably come with life. It’s a hell of an arresting voice that he possesses and he knows how to use it. At least that’s the impression I got every time someone shouted, “I love you, James!”
There was a point where he stepped back to “Take it all in.” as he called it. Literally taking two physical steps back from the microphone in order to look out into the crowd and appreciate what was before him. Between moments of tightly clenched eyes and crooked half-smiles, the ferocity of his performance is equal, whether the song was measured like “Move Together” or more forceful like “When We Were On Fire.” Whichever direction he took, the pleasure was in hearing him capture and release phrases with full-bodied tones, manipulating and controlling the smooth and abrasive nuances of his voice. And then you realize that he’s all of 23 years old and wonder where all of this not so simple vocal and lyrical brilliance comes from.
He’s gifted: young and gifted and seems to write from within, where he lives. All of the good and bad bits that have shaped who he is and who he will eventually become as a man/friend/lover/musician take fluid shape in and around chords and melodies. A storyteller, he is, and – in true troubadour fashion – he’s unafraid to peel it back further. Before launching into “Scars,” James gave some clarity to the song’s genesis, how it stalled, and its eventual completion: a song two years in the making, hung up on one particular relationship’s interrupted state.
In speaking with James after the show, came the question of whether his songwriting comes easier depending upon if it comes from a place of pleasure or pain. “I don’t know about easier,” James replied, “but the ones that seem to happen a lot quicker are the ones that affect you in a slightly more negative way because it’s a therapeutic thing, getting it off your chest. Yeah, I can do that by talking to friends and talking to family about it but these things play on my mind in a way that I need to put them down on paper and I need to put them down on a fret board and put them down on tape.”
Somewhere between this United States/UK tour and the end of the year, James hopes to have that much-anticipated, full-length debut album complete. An album that would see him meld his two musical halves, acoustic and full band, into an extraordinary and satisfying whole. With a heady confidence, the man knows what he wants.
“You’ll get a bit of each flavor.” James assured. “I wanted to work that in. It’s like “If You Ever Want To Be In Love” that we released recently: that’s already a step into it. There’s a full drum kit in there, lots of big vocals and stuff. That’s all part of the steps into a bigger sound. I was a kid in my bedroom listening to music and I was playing along to Cat Stevens, I was playing along with the Rolling Stones. So I was delicate and quiet at times. And then I thought, well that’s enough of that and the same thing happened with the Stones. It was all just so exciting. Ray LaMontagne. Foo Fighters. If it’s big and loud and crazy or if it’s quiet and acoustic, I’m just trying to do something that moves me or moves other people.”
So this James Bay show, like the many that have come before (including the massive show at the Mercury Lounge which was his introduction to performing in New York), was another notch in his professional belt: a full house, a deeply receptive audience and a full-blooded performance that moved people. James, his guitar and the audience communicated beautifully with one another.
And, despite the time, I was very much awake when it was over.