The Royal Albert Hall. Grand, historic, bordering on palatial – there are few other venues that can match it for scale. Playing here also lends a certain sense of durability, of being taken seriously as an artist; let’s face it, I can’t see One Direction or Rihanna playing here any time soon. So it says a lot about the music industry’s attitude towards Jake Bugg (not to mention about his own ambitions) that he’s playing a sold out show here at the tender age of 19 years old.
Tonight Bugg is not only headlining the Albert Hall; he’s also acting as his own support band. He strolls out onto the stage alone – apparently totally unfazed by the 5,000 or so sets of eyes trained on him – and settles down in the middle of the spotlight with an acoustic guitar. He opens his set with first album closer ‘Fire’, and from the first skiffle-tinged strum has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. As he ploughs through his nine-song solo set it’s clear to see just how far off the press tag of ‘the Dylan of the East Midlands’ really is. Live, his voice lacks any of the harshness of Bob, sounding more like a 21st century Donovan, while the songs themselves sound like they’ve picked up where La’s-era Lee Mavers left off, particularly on non-album track ‘Saffron’. ‘Country Song’ and ‘Strange Creatures’ are both big hits with the crowd, showing just how much both albums have been taken to heart. The set also gives Bugg the opportunity to show off his guitar skills, with some nice slide work showing that he’s more than just a pretty voice. He rounds off this opening set with a rousing rendition of ‘A Song About Love’, and the audience have barely belted out the last word before he’s down off the stool. A quick bow and a promise that, after a short break, ‘we’ll get down to business’ – and he’s gone.
If the antics of bald men of a certain age during the break are anything to go by, people are well and truly ready for the main event. Whoever picked the background music certainly knows their audience, as we’re treated to the occasional burst of singing along to ‘Waterfall’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’ (including, yes, lighters in the air), before Bugg returns to the stage with his full band, launching straight into Shangri-La opener ‘There’s A Beast And We All Feed It’. The crowd are loving it; from where we’re sat I can see hands in the air and girls bouncing enthusiastically on shoulders. The lyrics to ‘Seen It All’ sound somewhat ironic in the face of all this; I’m pretty sure a sold out Royal Albert Hall bathed in purple light is no everyday sight, even for this wunderkind. The band ploughs through a couple more songs, including ‘You & Me’, which is transformed into an ambling country-tinged shuffle, before Bugg dismisses them and brings on the first surprise of the evening – BBC Sound of 2012 winner Michael Kiwanuka. I’ve never really heard much of his stuff before but this is a great introduction. With both of them playing red semi-acoustics, Kiwanuka takes the lead, adding rich, velvety vocals to a slow blues-y track, as Bugg backs him up with harmonies and some nice, almost Fleetwood Mac-esque lead guitar. As soon as they finish the rest of the band are back on stage, and Kiwanuka and Bugg take turns to sing as they tear through a lively version of Kiwanuka’s ‘Tell Me A Tale’.
Once Kiwanuka has left the stage Bugg really hits his stride and takes the crowd with him, rattling through favourites from both albums. ‘Two Fingers’ inspires a mass sing-a-long, and ‘Messed Up Kids’ is made even more enjoyable by the sight of an 8 year old boy going mental with excitement about six rows in front of us; at least three people in the standing section can’t resist reaching up to high-five him. Things mellow out briefly on ‘Kitchen Table’, with the whole venue bathed in blue light like some 1950s Soho jazz club. ‘Slide’ and ‘Taste It’ go down well too, but the real excitement is saved for the next guest to come up on stage, as Bugg introduces Johnny Marr to frenzied cheers. Marr is pretty much a masterclass in rock star charisma, slinking and shuffling his way through ‘Kingpin’ before the set ends with him absolutely destroying the solo on ‘Slumville Sunrise’.
But they’re not finished there, and after a brief, well-earned break Bugg is back again for the encore, this time joined by a small choir on ‘Broken’. (If the Evening Standard is correct, these are some of the London teenagers Bugg has been working with all week at the Hall – although he makes no mention of it). The rest of the stage is plunged into darkness as Bugg sits under a dappled spotlight, a sea of mobile phone screens staring back at him. The track sounds amazing in this environment, and when the choir join in it’s enough to give me goosebumps. It’s pretty obvious that the man himself is also feeling pretty emotional as he thanks the crowd, telling us that it’s always been a dream of his to play here.
I’m not sure how his dream version would’ve ended, but I’m pretty sure he couldn’t do better than closing up on the song that kicked things off for him such a brief time ago. Rejoined by the full band, as well as both Kiwanuka and Marr, ‘Lightning Bolt’ is transformed into a joyous, victorious anthem, which has every member of the audience up and dancing. They exit to roars of appreciation, with Bugg even stopping to sign autographs at the side of the stage. He might only be 19, but he’s definitely got the rock star thing going on. And if tonight is anything to go by, this is only the beginning.