Monday, March 16, 2015

James Bay at the Bowery Ballroom

James Bay’s obsession with guitars began at home in Hitchin, England, around the age of 11. He found an old guitar with rusty strings that his father had buried in a cupboard for 15 years. He and his dad visited a local guitar shop to spruce up the instrument. Copying what he heard on his father's old records, the pre-teen taught himself to play by ear. He started playing in bands with his brothers and friends, but decided at 16 to go solo. A talented and accomplished painter and drawer, he had long planned to study fine art, but at age 18, Bay relocated to the seaside city of Brighton to study guitar. He began busking and playing open mics five nights a week in the town’s many small music venues. After Brighton, the next professional move was to London, where he built a solid reputation. Following three EPs in 2013 and 2014, Bay's debut album, Chaos and the Calm, will be released on March 24, 2015.

Previewing an upcoming sold-out tour with a warm-up performance at the Bowery Ballroom tonight, James Bay proved to be a promising artist. He is a singer-songwriter at heart, but wails like a gospel singer and plays a mean guitar. It does not hurt that he has the chiseled features of a model and dresses like a rock star, complete with long hair peeking out around the ears under a wide-brimmed wool hat. Backed by a small band, he projected a low-key charisma through his warmth and humility as he sang sensitive folk-styled lyrics that explored the discovery of a young man's journey through love and loss. He performed 11 of the 15 tracks from his new album, two songs from his most recent EP, and a surprising rendition of Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You." This cover seemed to sum up Bay's aspirations. While some of the songs were rocking anthems with intentionally catchy choruses, like "Hold Back the River," Bay's trajectory seemed primarily rooted in bittersweet heartache-drenched soul-pop radio ballads. A highlight was "Scars," a song he wrote after a lover abandoned him. Overall, Bay had the strong, achy vocals to power his moving lyrics, making him a artist to watch in 2015.

James Bay will perform at Irving Plaza on April 29. In the meantime, visit him at www.jamesbay.com.