Matthew Prudham experiences the much anticipated homecoming show from Sam Fender at the O2 Academy Newcastle – and Fender delivers a gig full of rock mastery, emotion and Tyneside spirit.
By Matthew Prudham
If you had somehow missed the conquest of Tyneside by Sam Fender over the past twelve months, then you would know after a short walk down Westgate Rd. Fans of all ages making their December pilgrimage to the Academy to see their rising star, a venue heralding a sold-out run of 4 gigs in a month, across the road a merch pop-up shop selling out of posters, tees and much more. It’s obvious that the Toon is enamoured with this 25-year old lad from North Shields.
I ensured I spread the word about Brooke Bentham – she’ll be back, for sure, headlining this venue in no time at all.
As the Academy gradually fills up with a varied audience ranging from thirty-somethings lads sporting retro Brown Ale Magpie strips to young girls experiencing their first ever gig, we are treated to an opening slot by local talent Brooke Bentham. Two cuts especially set the crowd alight. The second song of her set, “All My Friends Are Drunk”, the lead single from her upcoming debut album, sounded just as good live as on record, if not better. Her voice sails with ease over the arpeggiated melody. The crowd warmly receive this rather sad, but lyrically beautiful, track. “Perform For You”, though, more grungy in its energy, appears more appetising.” Distorted guitars from ex-Coral guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones and biting drums provide an edge to the track as she sings of “blood-sweet mouthfuls of love”. Her voice here is an ever-powerful machine, rich with soul. Having successfully grabbed the attention of the crowd away from their pints, she dashes off the stage having filled her 30 minute slot to cheers, revellers around me asking “Who was that?”, since she never once said her name. I ensured I spread the word – she’ll be back, for sure, headlining this venue in no time at all.
The forty minutes between the sets seems like an eternity, though this is eased by the great choice of songs on the PA, with Everything Everything’s “Qwerty Finger”, Foals’ “What Went Down” and Kasabian’s “Fire” amongst the rock hits on the playlist. In my vicinity are a group discussing how Sam has inspired them – it’s not everyday someone from the North East makes it this big. Selling out three UK tours in a year takes some doing, someone comments, calling him a “real grafter”. I have to agree – having seen him a year and a half ago as the opening act for the first edition of This is Tomorrow, below Little Comets, Everything Everything and Catfish and the Bottlemen, he’s worked hard to earn the right to headline the same festival only two years later, with the likes of Loyle Carner and Declan McKenna, both on their second albums, supporting him. He’s a phenomenon.
When the lights go down, there’s an abundance of screams and cheers. His set kicks off with “Will We Talk?”; immediately moshpits start in the centre as the first chords are played, and it would be hard to hear Fender’s voice if the PA wasn’t loud enough, given the immense singalong that is incited. Arms are spread aloft, people climb on each other’s shoulders – I even spot a guy close to me crying. After a blistering rendition of “Millenial”, his third release as an independent artist back in 2017, a chant of “Sam Fender, he’s one of our own” deafens attempts to start “Start Again”. Sam genuinely looks surprised and overwhelmed, and the calls on his fellow Newcastle United fans, who are in strong numbers tonight, to get Mike Ashley out of “our football club and our city”.
After “Start Again” is finally aired, we are treated to a rendition of “All Is On My Side”, which Fender promises to release sometime in the New Year. We’re in for a belter, then, as the track combines the detail and delicateness of “Leave Fast” with the pounding chorus of “The Borders”, which he airs straight after. He mentions that this cut is “my favourite from the album – Album 2 will sound a lot like this”. If this is the case, then he’ll surely gather further success – the song has a deep connection with the Tyneside community, which often feel left behind and neglected by the establishment. It speaks of “glassing a boy”, “taking them pills” and not having “a penny between us”, echoes of an upbringing in a town with higher than average unemployment, social housing and poverty. On a lighter note, saxophonist Johnny “Blue Hat” Davis who comes in dressed in a Newcastle United shirt incites cheers of his own, and brings a unique blues texture to the song.
The visuals that Sam employs at the back of the stage, showing scenes inspired by his album art, tour posters and music videos, transforms his gig into a proper experience. This is no more greatly demonstrated than in the next few songs. “Dead Boys”, concerning suicide rates in men, is a deeply serious song – and the tone is kept respectful and reflective through the sombre visuals on the screens, showing simplistic black and white colours. In the chorus, one can see the blurred faces of Sam and his band, cut from the music video, enforcing an image of struggle and disbelief. In contrast, on the deeply political “Play God”, monsterfied mock-ups of political villains BoJo and Trump are depicted – fitting for a song that rails against the powerful abusing their mandate, or popularising backward, racial views.
The tone of “Dead Boys” is kept respectful and reflective through the sombre visuals on the screens, showing simplistic black and white colours.
The “final song” of the main set is left for his debut’s title track, “Hypersonic Missiles”. By now, the moshpits are taking up most of the venue, and Sam takes great pleasure in geeing the Toon to defeat rival cities Glasgow and Manchester in their commotion. After cancelling the two dates prior at Birmingham and Bristol due to flu, one might expect his voice to tire – but it’s evidently not, easily punching out the high tenor lines of the chorus. After Sam goes off-stage to some mystery, the crowd keeps on singing the scat lines from the song’s B-section in strong voice, and this persists until the man of the moment returns to the stage alone. He delights the crowd with Toon Army chants – the audience responding as if tomorrow’s masses at St. James’ Park. Fender then plays us solo versions of “Leave Fast” and “White Privilege”, the latter aired after a little rant about the meaning of the song: “I’ve had complaints on Twitter that this song is racist against white people – that can’t be the case as I’ve never come across racism against white people, it just doesn’t exist”. Most of his songs carry a political message, such as “Hypersonic Missiles” about nuclear weaponry, but this takes it to another level – he is presenting himself as a spokesperson for the common people against the social media armies who battle against everything and belittle everyone under the sun.
“Saturday” is a proper blues-rock work of genius with a crunching guitar chord sequence to die for.
“Poundshop Kardashians”, another EP release that didn’t make it onto the album, is then set in motion, and halfway through the band creep back onstage. This furthers the song’s gradual crescendo, which keeps growing and growing in momentum and volume. We are then transitioned assuredly into the encore, started off by the brilliant “Saturday”, which, as Fender professes, “isn’t really about much, to be honest” – a rarity in his case – “it’s just about living for the weekend”. The video for the new single was released two days before starring Peep Show favourite Matt King, and it’s a proper blues-rock work of genius with a crunching guitar chord sequence to die for. Once again, Johnny Davis, the saxophonist, comes onstage to add further pizzazz to a sparkling performance. The final songs of this wonderful evening is a bristling rendition “Leave Fast” and then a smashing cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”, an artist who inspired him to start making music. To be honest, it’s refreshing for a singer-songwriter to claim this pedigree with the rock greats, instead of referencing more recent phenomena such as The 1975 or Arctic Monkeys.
Without a doubt, this was the best gig of the entire year. Long live the King of the Toon.
After the performance concludes and Sam & co take several minutes to leave the stage due to the incredible reception given by his hometown crowd, I know instantly that I saw something extremely special tonight. An artist on home turf, bantering and laughing along with his crowd, who deserves this moment after several years of hard grafting as an independent artist. He represents these Tynesiders’ hopes, beliefs and experiences. Without a doubt, many of the young kids and teenagers will pick up a guitar, inspired by a masterclass in modern rock music. Without a doubt, many of the older members of the crowd have found their successor to Dylan, Young, Sting or Springsteen. Without a doubt, this was the best gig of the entire year. Long live the King of the Toon.
Sam Fender plays O2 Academy Newcastle on 21st-22nd December 2019, Newcastle Arena on 3rd April 2020, and headlines This is Tomorrow Festival @Exhibition Park on 26th May. His number one debut album, “Hypersonic Missiles” is out now. Image credit: Kiara Davies.