Filling out the 20 or so tapings that happen for a typical “Austin City Limits” season can’t be an easy balancing act. It requires not only honoring the show’s roots-based longtime legacy while accommodating the more recent push across broader genre boundaries, but also bringing fresh names into the mix alongside legends who have stood the test of time.
Tuesday’s taping by rising English star James Bay was a good case in point. His resume checks a lot of the right boxes: three Grammy nominations this past year, a 2015 album that cracked the U.S. top 20, YouTube videos with views in the tens of millions, a breakout slot at the 2014 Austin City Limits Music Festival.
But with just one full-length record (and a couple of EPs) to draw from, it’s kind of a guess at this point whether the 25-year-old Bay is having his moment in the sun or if his music is built to last. The jury’s still out on that, judging from his 75-minute set at ACL Live.
Known for intensely brooding tunes, the kid can flat-out rock too, as Bay and his four-piece backing band seemed determined to establish at the start of the show. They cranked up the guitars on the bluesy opener “Collide” as Bay, dressed in black from his hat to his boots, strutted and stomped across the stage to the delight of devoted fans.
Many of those fans sang along on the more contemplative mid-set highlight “Let It Go,” one of several songs driven by a simple but lyrical guitar riff; though he had a supporting guitarist, Bay often took the leads himself. His best interaction with the band came on “Move Together,” as he turned his back to the crowd and reveled in Jack Duxbury’s exquisite extended piano intro. (Duxbury mostly played a real upright piano rather than an electronic keyboard, a nice touch that enriched the band’s sound.)
At times, Bay’s pop vocal instincts push into histrionics. When he’s not pushing too hard, as on the main set’s lone non-album track “Running,” he hits a nice blue-eyed soul groove. But on “Scars” and the set-closing “Hold Back the River,” he reached into a high register that felt more akin to Journey’s Steve Perry.
The young talent may just need time to develop, and to write more material. He played all but one song from last year’s “Chaos and the Calm” album; not many artists could pull off a solid start-to-finish set drawing from just one record.
In the encore, Bay added Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” starting with a slow and bluesy tempo, then cranking it into overdrive. It was a nice nod to the soulful stuff that has helped to inspire him, as was a beautiful guitar intro to “Scars” that adapted the melody of the Elvis Presley classic “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
And when Bay expressed his appreciation for the evening’s opportunity, his words seemed quite sincere. “All of us onstage geeked out on Austin City Limits,” he said. “It’s an honor to be here.”
3. When We Were on Fire
4. If You Ever Want to Be in Love
5. Need the Sun to Break
7. Let It Go
9. Move Together
10. Best Fake Smile
11. Get Out While You Can
12. Proud Mary
13. Hold Back the River