Live Review: James Bay at Georgian Theatre, Stockton-on-Tees

Soulful storytelling, a bunch of new songs ready for the next album and all the hits – James Bay enchants a Teesside audience on Friday night.

James Bay like everyone else has been clamouring to get back on a live stage and decided rather than jumping straight in to the mid sized concert halls in the UK that he could quite easily fill, to return to an intimate setting and celebrate small independent venues with a New Songs New Stories tour.

The idea being that he had written a bunch of stuff in lockdown and wanted to try it out first before deciding which songs would make it on the album. Just him and a bunch of guitars, although 2 looked remarkably the same. He opens with Craving and very quickly we realise thankfully that tonight will also include some hits too. The first thing very noticeable was that the longer hair and hat are back, he has shed that leather jacket rocker image of a few years ago and gone back to his busking roots. It feels a very comfortable and safe refuge, but he loves the audience banter in-between the songs. “I played a gig in London and it can all be a bit stiff you know, so its great to be back up North” cue big Northern cheer – we love a bit of North v South.

One bright young individual shouts “Hold Back the River” and he quickly replies “What…just play that and f#ck off right?” – this was a night of heart on sleeve storytelling mixed with some fun banter, it was relaxed just enough and more importantly the acoustics and his voice were the best I’ve heard in such a small venue. Full marks go to the sound and light engineer, with a ‘see me’ for the backdrop projectionist who managed to put an unused text box line right over his face for the whole show – see photos.

New songs blended well with the old and all had a little story to go along with them, yes we had more than our fair share of gushy ballads as he lamented over finding love and having a baby in the last few years. Everybody Needs Someone and Give Me the Reason stood out, but in particular One Life is probably going to be the next big hit, as it’s his most romantically inclined track – dedicated to his wife Lucy. Perhaps the next album may be a return to the style of his 2014 debut Chaos and the Calm, its hard to tell from what are stripped back versions of new material.

There was a feeling of really getting behind the James Bay persona tonight, he looked almost in tears when he explained how he had fallen out with a close friend before playing We Used to Shine and admitted that quite a few songs were based on that same scenario. Older songs like Let It Go and Scars take on new meaning, and with slight reworking for this intimate setting appear ever more powerful and emotionally charged. If You Ever Wanna Be in Love included some major audience participation so much that he decided to add an extra chorus just to hear it all again. “This is a great stage, it’s my first time in Stockton, I’ll come back if you’ll have me?”

Of course Hold Back the River closes the show but not before we have a great version of Best Fake Smile my personal favourite from the first album. Tonight was a triumph of blending new stuff with the old in such a unique setting, there are more than enough songs for the next chapter in James Bay’s career to make it a very interesting watch.

Words and Photos – John Hayhurst