One thing to take away from James Bay’s set at the Bournemouth International Centre: he knows how to make an entrance.
As the time after his support acts had left the stage stretched on, the crowd at the Bournemouth International Centre had swelled enormously. The large and unadorned semi-square swiftly filled out, and the crowd stretched to the doors at the side. Tech hands rushed about on stage checking the equipment and the crowd lights seemed to get brighter, with no end in sight to the waiting. The stage was simple: a backdrop with his name above a sketch of him with the already emblematic hat and shaggy hair. Several asterisk shaped lights lined up, and the places for the rest of the band comfortably arranged to give all the central space to Bay… when he turns up. Then, without warning, all the crowd lights went straight to black; less than a split second later, the eager crowd roared with excitement, cheering and applauding. Eventually Bay is revealed at the back of centre stage, hat, hair, and a guitar. Launching straight into rhythmic strumming, tempo ratcheted up high, he bounced down towards the microphone, ramping up the audience’s anticipation like a master.
Bay may be relatively new, but he has not an ounce of shyness onstage. His presence has all the command and playfulness of a real rock ’n’ roll pro. It’s almost off-putting how naturally it seems to come to him. Maybe the crowd was more willing to go with it than others, which only went to feed Bay. His banter with the audience was minimalist but solid, and as his set wound down he took the time to introduce his band and get the audience to show them love. Five songs into the set, he announced that he had never been to Bournemouth before – it was a special occasion for him. So, he would play us songs that weren’t on the album, like Deluxe edition highlight ‘Running’, with a stronger climax and more energy, or the EP treat ‘Sparks’. However Bay’s real banter came through the music, playing with riffs and extended intros into tracks, as well as compelling the (utterly willing) audience to sing and clap along, with the help of a few brilliantly timed cues from those asterisk lights. His lead into ‘Let It Go’ was magnificent, and subverted expectations that such an emotional track would need a quiet introduction.
While the vast majority of the set was devoted to playing through Chaos And The Calm, he’d clearly thought out an appropriate order for them, by opening with a song as immediate as ‘Collide’, and closing with one as loud as ‘Get Out While You Still Can’. Of course, ‘Hold Back The River’ was the last track he played – how could it not be? Yet the best and worst part of the encore was the cover of Alicia Keys’ ‘If I Ain’t Got You.’ Beautiful, honest, and a faithful cover, undone by a middle eight which became a middle sixteen, then a middle thirty-two, finally a middle two hundred. A completely indulgent series of solos for the band and Bay himself.
That’s still part of Bay’s onstage charm however – his total love for it, and the command he has over band and audience are impressive. While his indulgences get away from him, you can always feel how much he loves it, whether his powering through the punchy ‘Best Fake Smile’ or encouraging the audience to sway along before beginning ‘Move Together’. He never wants to leave the stage. It’s now just a question of when and where he’ll find a big enough crowd to satisfy that love, and not if.