Photo Credit: Emma Viola Lilja
Almost immediately after bursting onto the music scene, Britain’s Sam Fender was hailed as the future of rock music; winning the esteemed Brits Critics Choice award – previously awarded to the likes of Adele and Sam Smith. Fender’s full-length debut largely delivered on his early promise; filled with anthemic, timely tunes that further cemented the “voice of a generation” label so often thrust upon him.
A little over a week after the release of Fender’s acclaimed debut Hypersonic Missiles, the Geordie singer-songwriter announced a UK-wide tour set to begin in March of 2020. Of course, like pretty much every major event planned for 2020, the tour didn’t go ahead and was instead pushed back 18 months until November of 2021 – by which point Fender had already released his highly anticipated follow-up; the momentous Seventeen Going Under. In this time, Fender’s star has only continued to grow, and as he looked out at a crowd of nearly 5,000 this November, he seemed genuinely bewildered, remarking that “the last time [he] was here,” he was playing for a handful of people in a local bar.
Australia-via-London quintet Gang of Youths opened for Sam Fender on this November night – even bringing Fender (or “Fam Sender” as lead-singer David Le’aupepe introduced him as) out briefly to assist them on one of their songs. The group – whose third studio album is set for release next month – are an obvious choice for the opening act; given how well their Springsteen-meets-The War On Drugs sound complements Sam’s. Though most of the audience had little to no prior familiarity with the band, the energy is considerably lifted by the group’s short but electric performance, and Le’aupepe performed with all the confidence and swagger of a main act.
After a brief foray onto the stage, Fender then makes his official entrance, clutching a lightsaber and joined by stormtroopers and Darth Vader’s. Despite this officially being his Hypersonic Missiles tour (the Seventeen Going Under tour is scheduled to begin this Spring) his set is dominated by the songs from his latest album. It makes sense: written and recorded during the lockdown, these songs capture both the malaise of lockdown and the quiet resilience many were forced to find during it. There’s something utterly cathartic about lines like “Felt like giving up so many times before // But I’m still here grinding,” that are scattered throughout these songs.
Fender’s great gift as a songwriter is his ability to tap into a very specific, but deeply visceral, vain of working-class angst. Rowdy rock-number “Howdon Aldi Death Queue” reflects on the three months that Fender – who is classified as “high Covid risk” – had to ‘shield’ for during the pandemic (“I got a letter from the NHS // It’s said it’s here for twelve weeks // Or twelve weeks or summat”). Its chorus, however, taps into a more generally relatable sense of Gen-Z nihilism with its cries of “I’m twenty-five going on ninety-five // And I wanna die.” Both the crowd and Fender himself delight in shouting these lyrics at the top of their lungs. The roaring “Get You Down” – about feeling like a burden due to your mental health struggles – has a similar impact on the crowd.
Boosted by a fantastic live band and Sam’s spectacular vocal delivery – which is every bit as good live as in the studio – there’s an undeniable sense of catharsis to engaging with these songs in a live setting. The crowd, however, seems most moved by the set’s most subdued number “Dead Boys”; a meditation on male suicide that has sadly only become more relevant in the years since its release. “We close our eyes, learn our pain // Nobody ever could explain // All the dead boys in our hometown,” the crowd chants in unison; the saddest sing-a-long you’re likely to hear in some time.
The centerpiece of Fender’s performance here is “Seventeen Going Under” – the title track off his latest #1 album. Having spent its first few weeks hovering around the #50 mark on the British charts, the song had, just days before Sam’s live performance here, enjoyed viral success on TikTok and had, just that week, given Fender his first Top 10 (now Top 5) single. It was the lines “I was far too scared to hit him // But I would hit him in a heartbeat now,” that earnt the song viral success – as people used the song to soundtrack personal tales of abuse – and those very same lines sent a collective shiver down the spine of the audience that night.
Fender’s set is concluded with “Hypersonic Missiles” – a song, he has promised, will forever close out his live shows. It’s a spectacular number; one that combines political dissatisfaction with an intimate display of love, as Fender sings of giving a lover everything he has as they stare down the end of the world together. As the confetti falls, and in one of the more surprising moments of the night – a stormtrooper crowd-surfs – the crowd chant the titular lines “this is a high time for hypersonic missiles.” Maybe it’s our current apocalyptic hellscape, or maybe it’s just the triumphant arrangements of drums, sax, and guitar that make this moment so powerful. Few artists make music that isn’t just good, but genuinely life-affirming, however, Sam Fender’s set is filled with these moments – moments that remind us of the healing magic of music at its best.