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Gig review: James Arthur in Nottingham

Josh Robinson reviews the Middlesborough singer-songwriter's recent gig at Nottingham's Motorpoint Arena.

James Arthur released his fifth studio album Bitter Sweet Love on 26th January 2024. It was crowned the UK Number One album in the first week of February.

His longstanding popularity will have helped but make no mistake, this feat was earned through the quality of the LP. His career may have been kickstarted by winning the X Factor in 2012, but he has grown his fanbase exponentially since, due to his prolific releases & continuous improvement as a songwriter year on year.

So, I went to see James Arthur touring this album live at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena in March. It was at towards the end of his run of UK shows, and I went along with my mum and sister. Despite the ticket being on the more expensive side, the price was justified when the main support act was announced to be the ever-soaring Dean Lewis. Neve was the first support, and had a good voice and obvious talent, despite being at the start of her music journey.

Dean Lewis, though, was at the top of his game. He breezed through 9 songs that most of the arena sang knowingly back at him, in adoring unison. His ‘Be Alright’ closer was the perfect display of how accomplished he has become. That said, it was the previous tracks that spoke volumes for his discography.

New single ‘Memories’ is a sad number, thanking a departed loved one for the good times. Even higher up the tearjerker chain was ‘How Do I Say Goodbye’, a true throat-frogger. He questions how he can possibly say an appropriate permanent farewell to a passing family member.

My mum reliably informed me that it was actually written about his ill father, who thankfully recovered since. He performed a duet of this one with his dad on a previous show. That positive ending may be enough for you to hold back the river when listening to it.

Lewis appeared indebted to his legion of fans for their support. Often, he was cheesily finger heart-shaping to his fans at the same time as showing further appreciation, all at once. He seemed to feel so blessed to be on that stage, forging a career that will now see him perform at Wembley Arena in 2025, that he couldn’t limit his thank you gestures to just one at a time.

He was overcome with gratitude, and it was to lovely to see. Although Australian, his overly mannered nature was more reminiscent of the way American films portray British men in a rom-com.

After one of the most popular support performances I’ll likely see all year from Lewis, it was then time for the main event.

Impressively, Arthur tows the difficult line of being a singer songwriter, with an array of heartbreak songs, without being cringeworthy. The songs themselves are authentic, and Arthur’s personality and stage presence is also far removed from corny. He is real often to a flaw, with his honesty landing him in controversy in the past. With maturing and hindsight, the me vs the world mentality seems to have made way for a pure desire to perform & accept the adoration that comes his way. He never wanted to conform, just to perform. And now he has found that balance. He even joked about Anne-Marie coming on stage, only revealing it was playful after the crowd screamed the house down. That kidding represents that he has cultivated his own space to be himself, comfortable under the spotlight.

For context, Arthur does mean a lot to our family. He was the first X Factor contestant we ever voted for, and never did this in the years that followed. Our late Nan voted for him on the family’s behalf, all united in our impressed feeling towards him.

We took to his salt of the earth character, and his incredible voice. He often put his own modern spin on songs that had been covered to death, but previously done without much danger or difference. In contrast, his versions were always fresh, and unique. There was no doubt in our minds that he should win, and he’d reach big heights later down the line, and he did both.

Opening with the title track on the new album was the perfect start. ‘Bitter Sweet Love’ is jauntier than his usual material, with hints of The 1975 in the guitars & bassline. Another personal new favourite, ‘Blindside’, backed it up brilliantly. Sam Fender inspires the very start, whereas the verses give Harry Styles hints, but the chorus has urgent, classically- Arthur vocals.

The pop artist nods continued with song three, ‘Empty Space’. This 2019 single could be the spiritual sequel to Taylor Swift’s ‘Blank Space’. It is a truly great pop song.

Those trademark vocals of his are raspy, gravelly, but with a comforting tone. Indeed, since he came onto the scene, similar-ish voices have emerged and became somehow instantly recognisable yet confusable. Tom Grennan, Lewis Capaldi, Tom Walker and more could easily be mistaken for each other with certain songs of their. With Arthur though there is a nostalgic, soulful depth that makes his vocals more distinct than the rest.

In fact, the only voice where there is a definitive crossover with his, is Charlie Simpson from Busted. I remember when Simpson won the Masked Singer in 2023, Arthur was guessed as the man in Rhino disguise, and justifiably so. But even with that, I knew it was Simpson, although that might just show that my own music Venn diagram includes Busted as one of my formative bands. Anyway, I digress, so I don’t talk about Busted for ages.

Following such an upbeat, crowd-engaging start, Arthur stripped things back with a lovely, intimate band breakdown medley of some older tracks (‘Certain Things’/ ‘Sleep Inside’/ ‘Quite Miss Home’ / ‘Emily’). This was a showcasing of that voice, displaying the versatility and note-holding that helped make his mark back in 2012. It was also a singalong that helped pepper in some extra tracks, since he has enough hits & recognisable tracks to easily fill this set.

I have to admit, I had listened to a lot of his stuff in the build up to the gig, but there were even a few songs he brought out that I completely forgot were either his (‘Lasting Lover’, ‘Car’s Outside’) or had popular covers of (‘Re-write The Stars’, ‘A Thousand Years’). It was tune after tune, with fans belting every word in unison. This made me realise & appreciate just why he is a natural, arena artist. There’s an argument for saying he is still underrated in some sections, perhaps due to the stigma of his talent show beginnings.

For the encore, Arthur resumed things with brilliant new social commentary track ‘New Generation’. This one is another that feels like fellow North East raised success Fender could have written. “Bore us while we’re locked inside, sort of Trumps just Biden time” is a lovely bit of songwriting wordplay that shows he can dip into politics too when required. This one deserved a colossal crowd reaction & engagement, which had marked the whole of the gig to that point, but was strangely a little flat to begin with, before it soared as it went on.

‘Say You Won’t Let Go’ was the heartbreaking conclusion to a heartfulfilling, career-spanning performance, which marks Arthur as one of the best British solo pop acts out there. It’s a bit of a mystery why he’s not consistently on everyone’s lips, or indeed many festivals’ bills, but maybe that’s part of his lower key success recently.

He’s went about his business more quietly, letting his music do the talking, and has been careful not to overexpose himself like many singer-songwriters have. One thing is for sure though, that he deserves whatever further success comes his way.


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