Best known for his acoustic music, fans might think they know what to expect from James Bay, but the singer-songwriter defied expectations and showcased his range at a sold-out show at the Riviera Theatre (4746 N. Racine Ave.) March 19.
Noah Kahan, 22, opened up the show with his stripped back, relaxing-in-a-forest sound. With the help of vocals that highlighted softer moments and emphasized powerful, raspy ones, his performance showcased the storytelling ability of his lyrics. Kahan discussed his honest, experienced-based songs previously in an interview with The Phoenix.
Kahan’s musical skills were only rivaled by his comedic commentary between songs. He offered witty lines to keep the audience engaged before settling in for the next relaxing track. This humor helped liven up the set as the lighting on stage didn’t change at all.
Bay brought up the energy by opening with “Pink Lemonade” off his 2018 album “Electric Light.” The song and album as a whole take an electronic pop spin to the singer’s typical acoustic rock sound. The opening electric guitar riff of the song grabbed the audience’s attention and it didn’t seem to waver throughout the show.
This evolution of his sound might have been a surprise to casual listeners since he’s known for the slow, contemplative track “Let It Go,” which spent some time on Mainstream Top 40 radio and is certified double platinum. One thing that didn’t change was the power of Bay’s voice as he knew just when to pull back and when to belt it out to garner the most emotion.
Bay proved while he’s mastered the subtle acoustic moments, he can also channel the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. He took the track “When We Were on Fire” to showcase his skills as he shredded a guitar solo — a treat for those in attendance as it’s not in the studio version.
The instrumental skills continued when he and his touring guitarist had a moment of musical conversation playing riffs back and forth to introduce the song “Best Fake Smile.” There was nothing fake about the smile Bay was sporting throughout the show as his energy made it clear how happy he was to be on stage.
Bay mentioned multiple times how glad he was to finally be in Chicago after the original October 2018 date was rescheduled. He spent that extra time in the studio because he said writing was calling him.
Returning to the stage for an encore, Bay reiterated his excitement by playing an unreleased song titled “Bad.” Though he had just commanded the stage with confidence, he said he was “fucking terrified” to play the new song live. He took comfort in the support of the fans to shake off the nerves.
“I know I’ve got your back and I feel like you’ve got mine,” Bay said from the stage.
The slow, vulnerable track was followed by roaring applause from fans to assure Bay they have his back.
Bay brought the mood back up with a crowd-pleasing cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” The song gave the musician one more chance to show off his skills before closing with his hit “Hold Back the River.”
Bay covered a full range of emotions throughout his set as the crowd sang along to “Let It Go,” jammed out to the multitude of guitar solos and appreciated the unreleased song in an attentive silence. The range of emotion echoed that of his skillset, showing he can’t be pinned to a single genre.
“Electric Light” is available to stream and buy on Spotify and iTunes.