SINCE Sam Fender first announced these Barrowlands shows in September 2019, his star power has absolutely rocketed. In fact, just before the first Monday night show kicks off, it’s announced that his April show at Scotland’s biggest arena – the recently renamed OVO Hydro – is sold out.
All things considered, it feels particularly special to see him at the more intimate Barrowlands at this point of his career – if the pre-gig build up is anything to go by, these are the hottest tickets in town. You only need to clock the achingly long queue of punters outside, chatting excitedly as they wait to get into the venue, to realise that this kind of buzz is unique for a wet Monday night.
Of course, it’s been a long time coming – these shows have been subject to a series of covid-induced call-offs in recent months; but Fender is a man of his word, and those lucky enough to have a ticket are rewarded for their patience – and then some.
He returns to Glasgow just two weeks after the release of his second number one album ’Seventeen Going Under’ – a fiery, urgent and incisive record that has set him apart from his indie-rock peers, combining stirring air-punch-inducing anthems with sharp lyrical details born of deep personal experience. While his stunning 2019 debut album ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ was gritty, upbeat and anthemic, it only scratched gently on the surface of his songwriting prowess. On ’Seventeen Going Under’, he takes a massive leap forward – it’s not a vast musical jump (Springsteen is still his primary influence) but lyrically, the material feels wiser and weightier. Digging deeper than ever before, he sheds the romantic, heartland lyrical sheen of his earlier songs for rousing yet arrestingly bleak depictions of life in North Shields, delving into issues such as toxic masculinity, mental health, love, heartbreak, rage and regret against soaring, sax-soaked epics.
Instantly anthemic yet underpinned by a tender heart, these are songs that punch high in the air, and deep in the gut. That’s why he’s managed to amass such a huge following in recent years – you only need to look at the age range of the crowd to recognise his universal appeal.
From the very first note, he has them on side. Taking us back to the ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ era, he hits the ground running with the thunderous indie-rock of ‘Will We Talk?’. ’It’s the legendary Barras!’ he yells to a rapturous roar from the crowd, before launching into the poignant ‘Dead Boys’ – an early example of his ability to combine stadium-rock anthemics with deeply personal and emotive lyrical narratives.
‘All Is On My Side’ brings the pace down – a powerful and atmospheric track with heart-bursting guitar work that is reminiscent of an extended War On Drugs epic, before Fender introduces his favourite track from his debut, ‘The Borders’. Easily living up to all expectations, it also marks the now trademark appearance of Johnny Bluehat, dressed head to toe in Newcastle Utd regalia (and suitably unimpressed by the Sunderland top that’s thrown on the stage later in the set). A Tyneside take on ‘Born To Run’-era Springsteen, his soaring sax work takes the song to new spine-tingling heights.
Shortly afterwards, recent single ’Spit of You’ gets its first run-out at a headline show. The track is a poignant reflection on Fender’s relationship with his father – his soulful vocals adorned with the gentle twang of a mandolin as he proves there’s more to his live show than festival anthems and soaring singalongs.
Old EP track ’Spice’ and ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’ again offer a change of pace with a quick blast of punk-fuelled rock. Inviting the crowd to incite a massive mosh pit under a barrage of flashing red lights and thrashing guitars, it doesn’t take long for them to accept the offer. The latter, surprisingly only a b-side released in the run up to the new album, is a pulsing punk monster when performed live – and it’s exhilarating to witness.
The hits come in thick and fast from this point on. The jangly ‘Get You Down’, an anthem about imposter syndrome and personal insecurities, sees phones light up in the air, while the new album’s title track ‘Seventeen Going Under’ is a standout moment of the evening. A track about the trials and tribulations of youth that gradually develops into a rumination on violence, toxic masculinity, mental illness and familial anguish, it’s a flawless piece of writing and perhaps one of the best rock songs of the year. Easily Fender’s biggest triumph to date, it has the crowd in full voice with the massive refrain reverberating around the room.
Before the end of the night, we’re treated to a solo rendition of Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ – now a staple of his live set – as well as the brooding ‘Play God’ which sees Fender wield his guitar like a weapon, commanding the stage with his powerful vocals and strong riffs.
The show ends on a wave of euphoric energy with fan favourite ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ – the chorus is belted out by attendees as they pogo along in one final cathartic display of unity.
While Fender’s chat between songs may be less this evening, he makes up for it with masterful musicianship and bounding confidence, all while delivering a message of compassion, understanding and unity. Undoubtedly the man of the moment, the Geordie singer-songwriter has quickly outgrown venues of this size – this is a live show ready for any arena around the country. From his tiny gig at Tenement Trail in 2014 to where he is now, it feels like the world is his for the taking.
Photography by Alice Hadden