I’m one of those people who half-watches Later with Jools Holland. I mostly have it on in the background and show a vague passing interest in bands I like when they perform. The only real time I stood up and took notice was when a then relatively little known Jake Bugg was introduced on it. Hearing his voice and how different he was I knew then I wanted to see him live one day. When the opportunity arose to see him in Manchester, I was the first to put my hand up to attend. The Academy is probably the largest small venue in Manchester where you can see an artist before they get really big. It makes many gigs there a special occasion.
Cut to Thursday evening and I arrive at the Academy just in time for support act Valerie June; a bluesy / country singer from Tennessee. June is a charming performer, entertaining the room with a mixture of sparky acoustic country and bluegrass. Her music really gathers gravitas when she is joined on stage by a larger band and she rolls out some more bluesy numbers. The Academy is not the ideal venue for an act like June and it affects her stage presence. This is the kind of artist best caught live in a more intimate environment, but credit to her, she definitely has the voice that could fill a venue twice the size of the place.
Not long after June departs the stage with a cheery Valentine’s day themed farewell, a seemingly ordinary 18 year old walks out onto the smoke filled stage and picks up his guitar to piercing screams. He smiles over at one of his band and a second of incredulity crosses his face before a steely cool venire takes hold and he steps up the microphone. Out pours one of the most unique and captivating voices in music. Jake Bugg enthrals the sold-out eclectic crowd before him immediately as he launches into opening track ‘Fire’ and continues to progress through his massively successful self-titled first album. What amazes instantly is his voice sounds exactly as it does on his record. It is quite unbelievable.
After certain gigs it’s easy to pick out the high point, but this is not the case with Bugg. It’s difficult to pinpoint a moment that’s better than the rest because the standard is exceptionally high throughout. ‘Someone Told Me’, ‘Note to Self’ and ‘Broken’ all feature desperately heart-breaking moments and are sung with striking fragility. ‘Seen It All’ is the most different of all the tracks he performs and provides an exciting change in pace. The song is has echoes of an indie beat which when played at a venue like the Academy really picks up speed. Bugg’s first album has a predominately country sound but it’s clear that he could turn his hand to other styles at some point and most likely succeed.
As a character Bugg is difficult to decipher. He’s quiet but not shy. He has an arrogance that can only be attained if you are Liam Gallagher or if you are 18 and think you are invincible. He doesn’t actually do much on stage except play; he stands in the exact same spot for the entire show, but then he doesn’t need to; the quality of the material and his voice and music do all the work for him. Perhaps what works most of him is that he maintains an air of mystery. You’re left wondering how an 18 year old can carry such soul in their voice and how they can write such beautifully tragic lyrics. Where has he come from? And how has he created music that appeals to all age ranges, as demonstrated by the attendees at the show.
The announcement of his last song in the set draws a chorus of boos from the crowd. They still want more from Bugg, an hour and a half has flown by. Bugg closes the encore with a Johnny Cash cover which not many others would be brave enough to do. He more than does it justice which leads me to wonder; if this is the kind of show he puts on at 18, what could he do with a few more years in the business under his belt. He has all the potential to be a serious superstar. That’s probably an understatement.
Set list included: Fire / Kentucky / Trouble Town / Seen it all / Simple as this / Slide / Ballad of Mr Jones/ Someone told me / Country song / Note to self / Someplace / Two Fingers / Taste It / Lightning Bolt
Encore: Broken / Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)