|« Get to Know Anthony Pavel||Chicago Shaping Up Nicely at SXSW Music 2016 »|
Review Sat Nov 21 2015
The Riviera's stage looked eerily empty with just a keyboard and a microphone set up front and center. A massive, Simba-like illustration of James Bay's face draped the back wall of the stage, indicating the young British singer/songwriter who most of the crowd had come to see. But it was the other young British songwriter opening for him, Frances, who spoke with me yesterday. The 21-year-old is on her first American tour (it's her first time in America, period) and already seems to be on the fast track to success--her most recent single, "Borrowed Time," was co-written with Disclosure's Howard Lawrence, and her standout tracks "Grow" and "Let it Out" have garnered her a wealth of critical praise and the opportunity to work with writers like Jimmy Napes and Iain Archer on her forthcoming debut album. I was interested to see how she'd hold the crowd's attention alone on stage.
The crowd cheered politely as she strode up to her seat and launched into "When It Comes To Us," and immediately her prodigious piano skills and powerful voice had the front few rows mesmerized. Her singing will win her the fans, but her playing impressed me and serves as an integral part of her identity. "I did classical music all through school on piano, but when I was about 13, I started to want to play songs that I loved listening to--so that was like Carole King, and Radiohead, a lot of piano-based songwriting," she told me. Carole King is Frances' musical idol and dream co-write, and of course she saw the West End production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical for her 21st birthday.
As "When It Comes To Us" came to an end, the tone became conversational as Frances started to connect with the audience, which was now paying much more attention. She told them she had enjoyed some deep dish pizza before the show and didn't expect it to be so filling, drawing some laughs. A girl in the front row suggested that she try out the Lincoln Park Zoo, and Frances reacted in disbelief upon learning it was a free attraction. She would go on to banter with the crowd after every subsequent song, relishing their willingness to turn the Riv into an overgrown coffeehouse. "[American crowds] are very interactive, very loud, very receptive with talking to them and being friendly on stage," she told me. "You don't get that much in the UK, things tend to be a little quieter."
The second song she played was a cover of Justin Bieber's "What Do You Mean," which she imbued with jaw-dropping soul and stripped-down beauty, and she followed it with "Grow," the track that opened the media's ear to her. It's an uplifting manifesto that Frances wrote for her boyfriend of seven years, letting him know that they should both take the opportunity to go on solo adventures because their solid love can endure that separation. Crossing the Atlantic has probably given the song a fresh meaning for Frances, but "Grow" has also proven to touch others' lives in myriad ways. "There was this guy saying that he'd just dropped his son off at school for the first ever time, and that song came on and it perfectly fit what he was feeling," she said. "And there was a girl who was about to start university, and all sorts of different people, and the song meaning a lot of different things to people was amazing, because as a songwriter you want people to be able to relate the song to their life." There was even a YouTube commenter who told her that "Grow" had saved their friend from suicide. "I was sort of speechless," Frances admitted.
She finished her set with the trio of "The Last Word," "Let It Out," and "Don't Worry 'Bout Me," each of which showcased her unique voice, which Noisey described as "Florence meets Ellie if they were feeling extremely chill." Despite her wicked powerful pipes, there's a tenderness to Frances' singing that belies her vision of herself as a channel for emotions. "When I'm singing, I'm rarely thinking about the singing and I'm more thinking about the words I'm saying," she told me. "Sometimes it's the imperfections in voices that really get the emotions across. So I guess I just try to think about the song and what it's getting across."
Frances left the stage to a storm of applause, having certainly gained some new supporters, and then I would imagine that she watched James Bay's breathtaking performance. Touring with Bay, who has blown up since his "Hold Back the River" reached number two on the UK Singles Chart earlier this year, has afforded her a tremendous learning opportunity. "He's the most incredible performer," she said. "He's so amazing to watch on stage. And he's got so much energy--even in the quiet songs, the whole audience is with him the whole time. So definitely from the performance aspect, I'm learning a lot from watching him every night, and picking up on little things he does just to keep the crowd with you the whole show."
Bay's show was absolutely stunning, as his vicious guitar playing captivated the audience just as much as his soulful, tastefully raspy voice. One of the more remarkable aspects of his performance was the sheer variety of styles he evoked. "If You Ever Wanna Be In Love" could have passed for a track off Rumours written by a male Stevie Nicks; Bay' bluesy soloing on "Scars" and his cover of "Proud Mary" evoked Buddy Guy, who is one of his guitar heroes and whose hype man introduced him to the crowd; and "Get Out While You Can" had all the grandiosity of a classic Springsteen hit, minus a Clarence Clemons equivalent. Even more impressive, though, was his ability to direct the audience without actually directing it. On the anthemic "Let It Go," he had enough faith in them that he simply stepped away from the microphone on the last chorus and knew they would fill in the words without being told, and they began clapping to the beat of their own accord on "Best Fake Smile." The whole affair was a wonderful reminder that a great concert is a two-way street--a group of ladies in one of the opera boxes was dancing so joyfully that they actually took the crowd's attention off Bay a few times. He acknowledged them with a winning smile upon finishing the evening's music.
Given the immense passion the assembled patrons showed for James Bay, it's inevitable that Frances picked up a host of new fans, especially after showing that she could captivate an audience with just a piano and her voice. When she releases her debut album around the middle of 2016 and returns to Chicago with a full band in tow, look out.