MAY 14- The second the lights dimmed at the Fonda Theater, shrieks from teenage girls filled the room. As James Bay took center stage at the Los Angeles venue, with his long brown hair under his signature wide brimmed hat, and bright red guitar against his chest, the booming bluesy guitar riffs for “Collide” invigorated the crowd. Even on a cold and rainy Thursday night, there was excitement in the air.
Immediately, after he took lead in front of his band, it was easy to see why this 24-year-old from Hertfordshire, England is taking the music scene by storm, Bay has a presence that is undeniable. Bay combines his soulful voice, bluesy guitar solos, and contemporary songwriting into a unique sound that brings a wide range of genres together. You can’t quite pin him down into one area, because the mood and style from one song to the next is so different. It’s just James Bay.
Bay emerged onto the scene in 2013, after being discovered through a YouTube video and by the end of 2014, he had won the Brit award (the British equivalent of the Grammy Awards) for Critics’ Choice. Past winners include Sam Smith, Ellie Goulding, Florence and the Machine, and Adele, all of which have had massive success in the US. Clearly in good company, Bay has followed in his predecessors footsteps. But Bay knew that if anything, his early success just meant he has more to prove. In an interview with The Independent, Bay said of his Brit win: “I’m hugely appreciative of the recognition. But then I’ll go away and work on how great my live set is gonna be. I’ve got stuff to prove. That’s the crazy thing about the Critics’ Choice Award, you get it before you’ve really done much.”
But Bay has definitely been doing “much” since his win. His debut album, Chaos and the Calm, was released in March and peaked at number 15 on the Billboard 200 chart. Right before the release, he embarked on his very first headlining North American tour, starting in New York and ending in L.A. Acknowledging that it was the last impression he’d make for the tour, Bay made sure to tell the crowd he’d give his “everything” for it. And alas- he did. His determination to prove himself was evident in every note, movement, and smile. Following “Collide,” Bay moved on to “Craving,” another song which showcased his guitar skills, skills that may not have been as obvious in his more popular songs, “Let It Go,” and “Hold Back the River.”
Towards the middle of the show, Bay gave his band a break and began an acoustic section of songs, “Running,” “Let it Go,” and “Move Together.” The slowed songs showcased the troubadour’s rasp and gritty vocals, mixed with beautiful falsettos that sent chills up and down arms. But the most powerful and emotional song was the folky, “Scars,” a song that he was only able to finish after two years of healing (and a reunion with his girlfriend). Bay really did seem to give his all to the performance, his voice echoing through the venue as the audience stood in silence taking in all his emotion.
Changing the tempo completely, Bay picked things back up with “Best Fake Smile,” arguably the catchiest song of the record. The audience clapped and danced along to the booming chorus. At the culmination of the evening, Bay “ended” his set with “Get Out While You Can.” Again, Bay’s ability to switch from gritty vocals to beautiful high pitched falsettos was showcased in this Springsteen-esque rock song. Bay cleverly used his band to amplify this song, and they were able to showcase their talents in this one as well.
After some loud screams from the teenage girls and just about every “type” of person you could imagine in L.A. that made up the audience, Bay came back for his encore. After Bay sang “Incomplete” and a stunning cover of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” (with an incredible guitar solo in the middle), there was no denying it: James Bay isn’t going anywhere. With his musicality, his vocal ability, his good looks, and yes, of course, that charming British accent, Bay has nowhere to go but forward.
Even though Bay was a man of little words between songs, the crowd’s enthusiasm for Bay was evident as everybody- women and men, young and old- sang along every word to every single song throughout his set. All of Bay’s emotions, musicianship, hard work and passion was left for all his fans (and some celebrities- Nick Fradiani, Niall Horan, and James Marsden were all in attendance) to see and feel as he ended the night with the song that began most people’s admiration, “Hold Back the River.” “Let’s do this again soon, Los Angeles” Bay said, which I don’t think anyone would be opposed to.