Singer-song­writer un­veils new sound and look to a shriek­ing San Fran­cisco crowd.

Q (UK) - - Contents - EVE BAR­LOW

The re-mod­elled trou­ba­dour has his eye on the big time, live in San Fran­cisco.

It is James Bay who brings up the ab­sent ele­phant in the room first. “I did an in­ter­view the other day,” he be­gins, sat up­stairs at the Fill­more in San Fran­cisco. “It al­ways starts with, ‘Sorry, I hate to do this but… I have to ask about the hat.’” Not that he seems overly both­ered by such en­quiries. “I imag­ine David Bowie got a lot of ques­tions: ‘Where have the eye­brows gone? Why is your hair bright yel­low now?’” Though a wide-brimmed black bolero does sits on top of a flight case out­side of his dress­ing room, the lon­glocked, fe­dora-sport­ing trou­ba­dour be­hind 2015’ s twice-plat­inum de­but LP Chaos And The Calm is nowhere to be seen to­day. In­stead Bay sits down in suit trousers, steel-toed boots and a sparkly shirt that glis­tens against his porce­lain skin, run­ning his fin­gers through his newly shorn hair. It’s not just his wardrobe that’s been given an over­haul, ei­ther. Forth­com­ing sec­ond al­bum Elec­tric Light largely jet­ti­sons the roots-lite singer­song­writer moves of its pre­de­ces­sor in favour of a slick, more modern sound that takes in spa­cious elec­tronic pop, slinky R&B and the soul­ful glitches of Bon Iver’s re­cent records. Bay points to the Auto-Tuned vo­cals and float­ing synths of lead sin­gle Wild Love as the sign­post for his rein­ven­tion. “I sat back and lis­tened to it and I knew in that mo­ment that this is not mu­sic that was go­ing to be per­formed by a bloke with long hair and a hat. So I changed,” he rea­sons. “To stay the same is bor­ing. Prince sacked his name off. Michael Jack­son went from tuxedo and Afro to hat, glove, red leather jacket, to buck­les and a biker jacket across his three most im­por­tant al­bums. There are some more bizarre, po­ten­tially bi­o­log­i­cal changes that went on too, but…” They are lofty com­par­isons to make but it tran­spires Bay cur­rently has his eyes de­ter­minedly fixed on some pretty big prizes. The Fill­more is a spe­cial place for “The Bay” – as his team call him. When he was grow­ing up in Hitchin he’d pore over live al­bums recorded here by Aretha Franklin and The Black Crowes and played this room on his 23rd birth­day, open­ing for bluesy Amer­i­can singer ZZ Ward. Now 27, he’s since ex­pe­ri­enced a sen­sa­tional win­ning streak. Chaos And The Calm was a Transat­lantic suc­cess: Num­ber 1 in the UK, Num­ber 3 in the US. He won the 2015 Brits Crit­ics’ Choice Award, played Glas­ton­bury’s Pyra­mid Stage and sup­ported Tay­lor Swift on the Eu­ro­pean leg of her 1989 tour. See­ing that level of pop megas­tar­dom up close spurned him to go af­ter it

him­self. At the 2016 Brits he filled a spot as Justin Bieber’s gui­tarist (“It was mad: ‘Look, we’ve lost our guy. Is James up for this?’ I’m not gonna say no”). The Tay­lor Swift tour, how­ever, was the real rev­e­la­tion for him. “I went in with ex­panse on my mind. I came out shook even harder, even more hun­gry for that scale. You get a taste of it and it tastes fuck­ing great.”

At a mere 2500 peo­ple, tonight’s crowd is less than half the size of the ones he’s due to play to later this year, work­ing as a test­ing ground for a meld­ing of old ma­te­rial and new songs “to freak peo­ple out with”. As the room fills, the scale of Bay’s show be­gins to re­veal it­self. It’s the pro­duc­tion that strikes you as much as his first bit of pea­cock­ing. Though the stage is mod­estly sized, Bay treats it like he’s in an arena. A film pro­jec­tion plays across a mas­sive screen of two ac­tors in a trou­bled re­la­tion­ship, their di­a­logue mir­ror­ing the lyrics to Elec­tric Light’s open­ing track. It’s the type of thing you’re more ac­cus­tomed to see­ing at a big pop con­cert where some fan­tas­ti­cal theme and story arc book­ends pro­ceed­ings. He en­ters quite the pop star, too. In a red, Michael Jack­son-in-Thriller style leather jacket and black T-shirt, ac­com­pa­nied by deaf­en­ing screams. Bay’s newly beefed-up back­ing band of four play­ers and two back­ing singers in­ject more soul and R&B into shiver­ing gui­tar favourites such as Crav­ing, and the as-yet-un­heard chain­gang rock of Us and Slide. The lat­ter’s stripped-back ar­range­ment al­lows the band to down tools and all gather around a mi­cro­phone be­hind Bay like

his own back­ing line of Bay-ettes. It ends on a record­ing of Allen Gins­berg’s poem Song, which plays out as he ex­its for a mid-set change of clothes. His out­fit changes pale in com­par­i­son to his gui­tar-switch­ing though, with al­most a dif­fer­ent in­stru­ment brought out for ev­ery song. For those less fussed by Bay’s new whis­tles-and-bells razzmatazz, there’s still plenty of more earnest, one-man­and-his-six-string mo­ments. Bay goes in for some se­ri­ous eye-scrunch­ing noodling over the schmaltzier likes of When We Were On Fire, for in­stance. Such older num­bers feel a lit­tle mis­placed now though, and cer­tainly Bay him­self looks more en­ter­tained hol­ler­ing new Blondie-tinged sin­gle Pink Lemon­ade. He toe-heels his feet and flicks his head; free-er, friskier, and a lot more dy­namic. “I need one thing from you,” he says. “You need to be fuck­ing loud.” The crowd oblige through­out, in­cit­ing clap-alongs and on Just For Tonight they carry a whole cho­rus so Bay doesn’t have to. “Lis­ten,” he coos with all the heart­throb charm of Harry Styles. “I had my hopes up. But I didn’t ex­pect this. And I love it.” To ac­com­pany the new songs’ ver­sa­til­ity, Bay’s voice has di­ver­si­fied too. Rasp­ing and jeer­ing on rock­a­billy barn­stormer Best Fake Smile, on Wild Love it’s hushed to al­low the elec­tro nu­ances to flour­ish. With a soar­ing pre-en­core ver­sion of break­through hit Hold Back The River he sounds like a one-man Bri­tish Kings Of Leon. It pro­vokes the fans into a fi­nal round of ear-split­ting shriek­ing as he comes back for one last num­ber be­fore walk­ing off to Kiss by Prince, a lit­tle nod to his new-found capri­cious­ness. Back­stage, Bay re­calls a time when the screams were so un­com­fort­able he had to wince through a per­for­mance. “I can un­der­stand why The Bea­tles stopped play­ing,” he says, his choice of ref­er­ence again be­tray­ing the scale of his am­bi­tions. Re­tir­ing to his dress­ing room, it’s time to cool down his vo­cal cords with a hu­mid­i­fier, and pre­pare for the next show. There’s no beer, there’s no party, but there is a ma­jor pop star in wait­ing.

“I came away from the Tay­lor Swift tour with a taste for that scale. It tastes fuck­ing great.”

Bay watch: JB live in SF (p98).

It’s all up­hill from here: James Bay stud­ies the an­gles, San Fran­cisco, 27 March, 2018.

Think­ing big: Bay “treats the stage like he’s in an arena.” “My fe­dora! It’s gone!”

The new-look, new­sound­ing James Bay: “free-er, friskier and a lot more dy­namic.”

Poster boy: Bay in re­laxed mood, pre-gig.

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