“Leeds – You looked big enough in soundcheck, but now look at yas!” After 2 years worth of rescheduling, Sam Fender has finally arrived grinning on his first arena tour, allowing himself a moment of stocktake in front of a sold-out crowd. With minimal staging and his trademark outfit of oversized tee and baggy jeans, he is immediately unassuming, ushering us into a night of quiet competence.
Though North Shields and Leeds are 100 miles apart, Sam Fender very much feels like he could have been a pop star of our own. Both Yorkshire and Northumberland share a reluctant kind of working-class stardom, creating artists who feel the need to keep things low-key. ‘Will We Talk” and ‘Getting Started’ get things ganning on a solid keel, while “Dead Boys” — still his most devastatingly brilliant song — grows a slightly more upbeat outro, lending it an element of hope. Both ‘Mantra’ and early single ‘All Is On My Side’ follow, flickers of dexterous Steely Dan guitar noodling infiltrating his normal approach to Heartland rock. For a Wednesday night, he’s creating a beautifully relaxed vibe, but the titular Seventeen-year-olds down front seem a little restless, waiting for things to light back up.
Fender seems to know it himself. “That’s got the chilled stuff out the way”, he murmurs, switching gears into fan-favourite ‘The Borders’. It sounds great, but he still seems preoccupied with the delivery of perfection, watching his own hands and band more than the crowd. When his shoulders finally drop a little on “Howdon Aldi Death Queue”– a ferocious 2-minute showing of ambulance lighting and pithy self-deprecation that allows him to thrash a little further away from the mic — it’s a certified highlight, a joy to see him let loose.
It’s understandable that he might still be learning how to take up such massive space. Many of these songs have been honed in tiny pre-pandemic rooms, where a feeling of audience closeness is a given. There is no denying that he has the tools for the job – ‘Spit Of You’ is a particular tear-jerker set to fan-uploaded childhood photos, while ‘Seventeen Going Under’ is a resolute terrace anthem, big ‘whoas’ taken up enthusiastically by the crowd. ‘Play God’ is the last song before the encore, finished very abruptly before he swiftly returns, mocking the pointlessness of his exit. “Honestly, I’m gonna stop doing encores. They’re so anxiety-inducing…imagine if everyone just walked off before I got back”. It’s an endearing insight into the artist’s headspace, and one that offers insight into the setlist balance too – difficult, gentle feelings out of the way early, then a comfortable ride till the end.
Laughing as he knowingly plays into his most common comparison, he launches into two Bruce Springsteen covers; “Dancing In The Dark” and “I’m On Fire”, the latter a sweet duet with Dave Le’aupepe from support act Gang Of Youths. The former is quite remarkable: just a solo Sam and his Fender, lights low, belting out his heartfelt best. Clearly in his comfort zone, it’s spellbinding stuff, setting him up nicely for the joyous confetti rein of ‘Hypersonic Missiles.’
Arenas or none, you don’t come to a Sam Fender show expecting jazz hands and elaborate costume changes. You want a stoic and down-to-earth songwriter, and what he delivers is a calm, professional, note-perfect rendition of his journey to now, only faltering in his seeming reluctance to really revel in his own success. Maybe it’s shyness, maybe it’s arena-awe, maybe it’s just a man who is still figuring out to be both the humble lad from the North and the swaggering rock star without realising his much-documented fear of coming across as a bit of a dick. When he figures it out (as he undoubtedly will), he’s going to be unstoppable; these are absolutely the rooms that Sam Fender’s music deserves.