Gig review: James Arthur at O2 Academy Leeds

James Arthur
James Arthur
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Barely three songs into his performance, and James Arthur finds a lacy, purple thong wrapped around his jaw. Various other items of lingerie follow; with preternatural ability, he throws his fist to the side and captures a large burgundy brassiere. “Great reflexes, right there,” he quips to much screaming.

Five turbulent years on since he won the X Factor, Arthur’s resurgence is down to the devotional faith of his fans – but at the O2 Academy Leeds, he remains chained, by choice or compulsion, to the polished beast of reality television balladry, for better and worse.

Support is provided by singer-songwriter Callum Beattie, whose earnest, winsome brand of acoustic pop is augmented by piano and glittery-gold Les Paul. Though indistinctive from the decade’s glut of folk-tinged balladeers at a glance, his Scottish burr steers clear of maudlin waters and his songs are sparkling enough to stand apart, from the keening Bonfires to the Americana strum of Wanderlust. He closes his brief set with the sorrowful We Are Stars, a relatively by-the-numbers track that still incites shivers; his imminent first record promises more of the same.

Few talent show winners mount a return to the limelight after the first flush of fame, but Arthur appears to be an exception to tradition. Sophomore effort Back from the Edge is a knowing nod to his very public meltdown; it has already matched the sales of 2013’s self-titled debut and has helped him crack the US charts too.

Backed by a well-honed five-piece band and dressed in Tom Baker’s longcoat from Doctor Who, his performance leans heavily on the new album, from the rock-faux-rap of Prisoner to the Motown soul-infused Phoenix. Several miss the target however; the brassy joy of You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You feels bereft of genuine freedom, whilst a cover of Clean Bandit’s dancehall hit Rockabye feels cheaply cynical rather than euphoric.

It is the tortured power-ballads that are Simon Cowell’s bread and butter that best highlight Arthur’s prowess. His voice remains an evocative tool and his greatest asset; naturally, it is at its best when belting out Impossible or crooning the softly-spoken Safe Inside.

Closing with R&B comeback hit Say You Won’t Let Go, he announces an arena tour for November. It is unlikely to be a boundary-pushing extravaganza; though eclectic in pop-veins, James Arthur live only steps out of the ordinary when he paradoxically returns to a tried-and-tested formula.

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