Gig review: James Blunt at First Direct Arena, Leeds

With an audience stretched to the rafters, the MOR balladeer-turned-would-be national treasure blurs the line between ironic enjoyment and full-bodied entertainment.
James BluntJames Blunt
James Blunt

Even before he has struck a note, James Blunt has his tongue lodged firmly in cheek. Advertisements flicker around the First Direct Arena, beamed onto massive screens, touting his own line of fashion and apparel available at the merchandise stand, aptly named Blunty’s. There are mocked-up images of Rishi Sunak, Kim Jong Un and Taylor Swift all sporting his shirts amid pastoral idylls, plastered with the singer-songwriter’s face. JOIN THE B LIST, the tagline urges.

Consideration of national treasure status might remain a stretch but as he closes in on two decades since his breakthrough, the singer-songwriter might still find himself bestowed with the curious honour. He has long since trumped the role of panel-show punchline; his sharp wit and self-deprecation, readily displayed across social media, have earned greater affection among self-sophisticated critics and once-sneering chart guardians that his MOR balladeer catalogue ever has.

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Here, for a show where his audience stretches to the rafters and returns every note with a lusty bellow, it appears the line between ironic enjoyment and full-bodied entertainment has crumbled, even as his gags remain. “Shall we play the new album in full?” he asks to a loud chorus of pantomime boos before a roguish grins “It’s too late, I’ve got your money! Sit down and f***ing enjoy it!”

That record in question, 2023’s Who We Used To Be, is well-represented throughout, and some of its key tracks are quietly affecting in their power; Dark Thought, dedicated to the late actress Carrie Fisher, a close friend of Blunt’s, is a confessional with electronica flourishes and droning guitar swoops. Likewise, the clubland euphoria of Robin Schulz collaboration OK proves his way with an earworm was never exhausted by Back to Bedlam.

But the early stuff still stands as his crowning achievements. Goodbye My Lover, introduced as a “miserable song”, seems to leave Blunt overwhelmed, left to walk the stage with his palm pressed against his chest afterwards.

You’re Beautiful plays somewhere between beer-riddled catharsis and genuine goosebumps, while a lively piano-stomp cover of Slade’s Cuz I Love You sees him dash into the crowd, knocking over patrons and beers in a mad rush of high-fives.

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“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he says, before a closing burst of Bonfire Heart and 1973 leaves him standing atop his piano and his fans dancing in the aisles. Perhaps national treasure status isn’t too far-fetched after all.

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