In June of 2014 I witnessed James Bay hypnotize a Hotel Café audience of less than 200 people into a state of reverent rapture with his golden pipes and crimson vintage Epiphone Century guitar. Heading to his December 1st 2015 show at the 3700 capacity sold out Hollywood Palladium 18 months later, I was skeptical that the specialness of that first moment of discovery could be equaled.
As it turned out, this was an instance where I was delighted to be proven completely and utterly wrong. James Bay offered the Los Angeles crowd a performance to be remembered on his final show of the US tour supporting his splendid debut album Chaos and the Calm.
Star power, artful lighting, staging magic, and musical chops were in full effect in the largest venue that Bay has played to date in America. The set began with the appearance of a giant silhouette of James Bay wearing his signature hat behind a white sheet-like curtain that dropped to reveal the lad from Hitchin, Hertfordshire UK. The staging reminded me of something another distinctive hat-wearer, Michael Jackson, might have done and elicited the first elated screams from a crowd that was predominantly female, yet also a diverse mix of ages, underscoring the wide appeal of Bay’s repertoire.
James Bay hit the stage with the energy of a prizefighter entering the ring with the punchy number “Collide,” bouncing up to the mic, brandishing a shiny red guitar in lieu of boxing gloves. Four musicians accompanied him on stage rounding out the sound with guitar, bass, drums, and piano. The opener and the wild cheering that resulted set the tone for the evening: dynamic, triumphant, and crowd-pleasing.
“Craving” followed, with an incitation before the final chorus, “Los Angeles! (with the last syllable charmingly pronounced to rhyme with ‘cheese’ as is customary is England) I want to see your hands in the air!”
A quick guitar switch with the help of the technician perpetually on call in a little booth installed stage right, and then “When We Were on Fire.” James Bay checked in with the crowd asking if everyone was doing all right (they were) and inquiring if everyone was ready to sing along… affirmative! The first piano chord of “If You Ever Want to Be in Love” was enough to clue in most of the audience as to what was next on the setlist, eliciting more joyful screams and sing-along moments as James Bay stepped away from the mic to let the crowd deliver portions of the chorus. A solo acoustic reprise of the chorus gave the audience a chance to sing even louder at Bay’s asking. Judging from the sound that filled the room, all in attendance willingly obliged.
“We’re going to slow it down a bit so we can leave ourselves somewhere to go,” Bay said as a preface to “Need the Sun to Break.” Golden lighting, reminiscent of sunlight streaming down, emphasized the lyrics beautifully.
“I’m going to play a song that’s not on the album, okay?” announced Bay before singing “Running” from his 2014 EP Let it Go. Hands and voices were raised throughout the crowd, but by no means in protest.
A lengthy intro, a pregnant pause, and the first lovely guitar strains of “Let it Go” were greeted by a collective roar of bliss and--sign of the times and of the audience demographic--a wave of cell phones lifted skyward to capture a moment of video. Bay encouraged the crowd to sing along during the chorus. Raising his arms and clenching his fists, Bay basked in the wave of applause and cheering that greeted the hit song.
Bay delivered a hauntingly beautiful guitar solo for the next few minutes, standing alone, center stage, with a single beam of white light streaming down in the darkness. The solo segued into “Scars” initially played solo acoustic, eventually blossoming into a tremendous full band finish. It was masterful, moving, and my personal highlight of the evening.
“How are you doing? You sound good. You sound incredible!” complimented James Bay before instructing concertgoers to put your arm around someone they love and sway to the next song, “Move Together.” Bay began the song at the back of his stage regrouped in a circle with his musicians, jamming on a gentle, piano-heavy intro that hushed down to a mere whisper before Bay would return back to the face the crowd and perform the song in full, ending with a stunning vocal improvisation in his upper range that garnered screams yet higher in pitch from the female-dominated crowd.
A call and response moment with the audience provided a bluesy intro to a rousing, rocking rendition of “Best Fake Smile.” Bay sing-shouted the first line “Well you don’t have to wear…” in a style that was reminiscent of Elvis Presley attacking the first notes of “Hound Dog.” Bay’s pianist abandoned the ivories for a moment and grabbed a guitar, bolstering the wall of sound with a third guitar.
“Thank you so much, my name’s James Bay!” launched the last song of the pre-encore set, “Get Out.” Raising his fist and his red guitar, an ecstatic Bay reiterated, “Thank you LA!” to an even more ecstatic crowd. “Thank you so much!”
Bay would return for an encore of “Incomplete” followed by a cover of “Proud Mary” that served as a savvy, river-themed segue to the much awaited and wildly appreciated “Hold Back the River.”
It was an evening where nothing whatsoever was held back, whether on stage or in the audience’s jubilant reaction to James Bay’s impressive delivery, authenticity, and stagecraft. Musicians and attendees alike left the venue with the confirmation that music is made for moments like these: uplifting, touching, and triumphant.
James Bay Setlist, Hollywood Palladium, December 1, 2015
When We Were on Fire
If You Ever Want to Be in Love
Need the Sun to Break
Let it Go
Best Fake Smile
Hold Back the River
Special thanks to Tamarind Free Jones for her excellent photography. See more of her work HERE.