REVIEW: James Bay brings a new sound to the Fillmore

James Bay

Photos: Steve Carlson

SAN FRANCISCO — James Bay isn’t afraid of taking risks, that much became obvious at his Tuesday show at The Fillmore.

When the English singer-songwriter took the stage for his sold-out performance, he looked hardly like the James Bay who visited the Bay Area in years past. Gone were the signature long hair and wide-brimmed fedora that suggested folk-rock ambitions. They were replaced with a sheen and swagger that added suggestive overtones to his already soulful sound. Looking less like a Lumineer and more like a cross between Harry Styles and White Stripes-era Jack White, Bay was bathed in a harsh and contrasting light from the onset, which set the tone for a night where he explored the exhilaration and devastation of human relationships.

Bay wasted no time getting to his new stuff, from the forthcoming sophomore LP, Electric Light, with new tunes “Wasted” and “Pink Lemonade.” The latter had jangly guitars and dance-infused beats. A detour into older material saw Bay applying a fresh sound to familiar tunes like “When We Were On Fire,” which was given a funky but impressively restrained reimagining that served as a perfect lead-in to Bay’s other new single, the throbbing and sinuous “Wild Love.”

The first half of the show explored the exhilaration of romance but video interludes featuring a couple in a relationship foreshadowed a rocky road ahead. Bay would eventually get to the less pleasant state where many relationships seem to end up. And when he did, the results were stunning. 

Bay set the stage for an emotional three-song gut-punch near the end of the main set with 2015’s “Scars.” He built the song slowly, allowing the words room to breathe with just his voice and guitar before introducing an organ and his backing vocalists, and finally the rest of the band, to bring the song to its powerful climax, repeating the hopeful refrain “We lived through scars this time/ But I’ve made up my mind, we can’t leave us behind anymore.”  

He followed that determined sentiment with something less assured, new gospel-tinged rocker “Us:”  “Tell me how to be in this world/ Tell me how to breathe in and feel no hurt/ Tell me how ’cause I believe in something/ I believe in us.”

By the time he reached the final song in the series, the beautiful ballad “Slide,” the devastation was complete. Illuminated by a single spotlight and accompanied only by a piano and the vocals of his band gathered around a single microphone, Bay sang, “Nobody wants to wake up alone/ So we slide into the arms of someone else.” An audio excerpt of Allen Ginsberg’s 1954 poem “Song” played as the song’s last chords rang out: “The weight of the world/ is love/ Under the burden…”

After another video interlude, Bay brought the energy back up with a mix of new and old uptempo tracks like “Just For Tonight” and “Best Fake Smile.” His best-known song, “Let It Go,” turned into a massive singalong and provided a bit of much needed catharsis for the heaviness that preceded it.

David Ryan Harris, known for his work as a guitarist for John Mayer and others, opened the show with a set of solo material. Harris charmed the audience with a soulful  performance, featuring a gentle style that fans of Mayer’s softer ballads would find instantly appealing.

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