REVIEW: Sam Fender, Leeds Arena, November 24

All photos by Dave Lawrence

RIGHT now, the world is at Sam Fender’s feet and it's there for the taking. His no-nonsense brand of guitar rock and a barrow load of songs that his audience can identify with make a refreshing change to much of the mediocrity that currently finds its way into the charts and on to our airwaves.

Fender has now delivered two superb albums, the latest of which, Seventeen Going Under, pulls off the tricky business of being even better than his debut Hypersonic Missiles. 

The energy of his performances, the championing by Springsteen’s guitarist Stevie van Zandt (with whom Fender guested on stage in Newcastle pre-Covid) and the regular performing of some of the Boss’s songs all mean that comparisons to a young Bruce Springsteen are inevitable.

But forget New Jersey, cars and girls, it’s growing up on the mean streets of Newcastle that form and influence Fender’s songs.

As any Geordie will tell you, he’s one of their own. Last week he played to a rammed,11,000 capacity sold-out Newcastle Arena that gave him a hero’s welcome and this week it was Leeds’s turn to see what the fuss was about when he performed at the FD Arena on Wednesday.

These shows are rearranged ones thanks to Covid postponements, but already

next year Fender has a sold-out spring tour of arenas to keep him busy before some prestigious slots on The Killer’s summer stadium shows.

Taking the stage to a background of sax and trumpet, the crowd were already simmering nicely, but as Fender walked out and strapped on his guitar boiling point was approaching. Opening number Will We Talk? set the tone for the evening and had a buoyant crowd beaming with pleasure as their mass singalong seemed to take Fender by surprise.

It was a great start to the set and was followed up by the aptly titled Getting Started. The tempo slowed with the mournful Dead Boys - a song addressing teenage depression and suicide – and Mantra from the new album before a spirited version of The Borders, arguably the strongest track on his debut release.

If you’re not one for the Springsteen comparisons then this song may just change your mind. Sax player Johnny Davis’ contribution just before the last chorus effortlessly calling to mind the late Clarence Clemons’ role in the E-Street band. It was glorious to witness the band on full throttle with audience singing along at the top of their voices.

Fender told the crowd there would be a mosh pit for a couple of songs and as space was made told the audience: “Go in it, or don’t. But if you do, look out for each other and pick anyone up who goes down and if there’s a problem I’ll stop while it gets sorted.”

Spice and the Covid-infused thrash of the wonderfully titled Howden Aldi Death Queue provided the mosh opportunity during which the participants steadfastly rejected the advice in the lyrics to “Keep your distance / Woah woah woah woah woah / That's less than two metres”.

Another cracking song from the new album Get You Down was enhanced again by Davis’ driving sax run and before Spit of You, a love letter from Fender to his Dad.

Last week he called out on social media for fans to send in photos of themselves with their loved ones saying that some would be used as a backdrop during the song on tour.

It made an emotional song about how fathers and sons often struggle to talk of their feelings doubly so, Fender’s lyrics recounting how witnessing his grandmother’s death affected his Dad and how it reminded him of the importance of making the most of your time with your loved ones.

Fender finished his main set strongly with crowd favourite Play God, but before that we had a stunning version of Seventeen Going Under. The song is a brutally honest, almost nihilistic backwards glance to his teenage years, referencing snuff videos, fist fights on the beach, scrapes with “the bizzies”, first love, his mother’s struggles with debt, illness the DWP and the perils of brooding anger. There is no doubting either the song’s power or how deeply personal the lyrics are.

 Armed simply with his grey Jazzmaster guitar, Fender returning to the stage with Dave Le’aupepe from Aussie support band Gang of Youths - who, incidentally were excellent - to sing Springsteen’s I’m On Fire and then covered another of his songs, Dancing in the Dark, before his bandmates rejoined him for Saturday.

There was only song that could finish the evening and that, of course, was Hypersonic Missiles which had the crowd bouncing and singing along at top volume as columns of CO2 shot skywards and a shower of confetti fell all around them.

It was an assured performance that oozed confidence and swagger and demonstrated why Fender is currently riding high with both critics and fans. In August I saw him and his band almost take the roof off a 300 capacity theatre in Stockton with their performance. In Leeds, they stepped up and repeated the feat to over 13,000 people. Tickets for next year’s shows are like gold dust so I for one am hoping the bookers for next summer’s Open Air Theatre season in Scarborough are taking note and try to encourage him to take a trip to the seaside.