Gig review: Sam Fender at First Direct Arena, Leeds

When Sam Fender re-emerges after barely a minute offstage for his encore at Leeds’s First Direct Arena, he entreats his audience to the fact he is about to play a pair of Bruce Springsteen covers.

Sam Fender. Picture Charlotte Patmore

“They say he’s like a Geordie Springsteen,” he wryly quips, barely legible over the sell-out din of lager-drinking gig-goers one ladder away from swinging off the rafters. “I’m not doing myself any favours here.”

The North Shields native is more than simply the sum of his New Jersey influences; indeed, if anything, his penchant for marrying introspectively personal lyrics with slightly off-kilter widescreen anthemics recalls the confessional pains of Jeff Buckley crossed with the dreamy stratosphere of The War on Drugs as much as it does The Boss.

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But two albums on from the BRITs Critics’ Choice Award in 2019 that effectively anointed him on the upward trajectory he continues to furrow, the 27-year-old is well on the cusp of stepping out of their shadow; a rock-and-roll singer-songwriter fast carving out a reputation in his own image.

This stop – likely the biggest headline show of his career to date, at West Yorkshire’s premier 13,000-plus venue, after gigs in Newcastle and two nights at London’s Alexandra Palace – is the sort of resolutely unfussy performance arguably just a shade below the typical arena standard, well-honed from the resurgent festival circuit.

Fender is not the type of artist prone to choregraphed pyrotechnics or bladder-busting marathon sets – at least, not at this stage of his career – but the sheer breadth of his soundscapes means that he already feels like he could be well at home in venues like this.

Across a shade under 90 minutes, and piped on to the tune of John Williams’ The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back, he runs the gamut of his career to date, from the skyscraper monochrome plea of Will We Talk?, through self-professed early favourite The Borders, rendered in full billowing sax break mode, and all the way to newly-minted top-ten single Seventeen Going Under, the sort of blockbuster cut likely to be his stock-in-trade for years to come.

The two aforementioned Springsteen covers – a stripped-down Dancing in the Dark and faithfully sultry I’m On Fire – follow a more unorthodox garage punk rattle through the fabulously named Howdon Aldi Death Queue, and it all comes to a close with his generational-statement-in-the-making Hypersonic Missiles. He ain’t going places; he’s already arrived.