“I’m gonna remember this one for a long time, I think,” Sam Fender says, surveying the 45,000-strong crowd gathered in London’s Finsbury Park tonight (July 15). It’s the end of a special one-day festival in the park – one that’s seen the North Shields singer-songwriter curate the line-up himself, bringing friends and peers like Fontaines D.C. and Rachel Chinouriri to join him on the bill. It’s also his biggest headline show to date; a celebratory milestone that offers a chance to look back on just how far he’s come.
It was only five years ago that Fender was a relative unknown. There was no major label record deal, no spot on every coveted ones-to-watch list across the land. He was yet to be crowned a BRITs Rising Star, top the Official UK Albums Chart with his debut album ‘Hypersonic Missiles’, or have his acclaimed and similarly chart-topping second record ‘Seventeen Going Under’ be named Best Album In The World at the BandLab NME Awards 2022.
All that began to change when he started releasing his music officially – at first independently and, later, via Polydor – his authentic storytelling resonating with listeners who’d experienced the small town life he sang about or had faced similar hardships and circumstances. Tonight, a big city plays host to those stories and people from small towns in the same region as Fender appear to have congregated en masse down south. As the searing stomp of ‘Will We Talk?’ Kicks things off, black-and-white flags wave above fans’ heads and Newcastle FC shirts adorn the bodies of more than a handful of attendees.
If there’s a sense of hometown pride swelling up in some of today’s punters, then Fender isn’t far behind. At various points, he plays a guitar that is also striped in black and white, while after ‘Play God’ he grins at the crowd and notes: “I presume there’s people from Newcastle here.”
Part of Fender’s appeal is his unflinching honesty and relatability, and he highlights that once again on this stage tonight. “This song’s about my old man,” he says before ‘Spit Of You’. “You know that feeling when you love someone so much you wanna punch the fuck out of them?” He pauses as the crowd laughs in response, self-awareness suddenly hitting: “That’ll be in a review tomorrow.”
There’s humility in bucketloads, too – despite this being his big moment, he never fails to turn the praise back on those around him. ‘Saturday’’s final notes ring out and Fender takes a second to raise applause for his band. “To share this day with all the people I look up to and to play on this stage with all my mates, it’s the best job in the world,” he says sincerely. “Shout out to these lads – it might be my name on the ticket but it would be fuck all without these lads.”
The majority of tonight’s setlist is picked from the musician’s second album and, with just festival dates a few gigs supporting Florence + The Machine and some US shows left, the gig feels like the beginning of the end for that record’s campaign. It’s fitting that such a special record should start to bow out at a special gig like this – it’s a chance for it to be given the salute it deserves and to kickstart a short victory lap before Fender heads off to work on whatever comes next. Early on, ‘Getting Started’ does exactly what it says on the tin, really lifting the crowd for the first time, and later the likes of ‘Get You Down’ and ‘Better Of Me’ offer buoyancy and reflection, respectively. At the end of the main set, he sets down his guitar and moves to a keyboard at the back of the stage for a beautiful version of ‘The Dying Light’.
If this is Fender’s lap of honour, then it’s one that lifts up not just the big singles and anthemic songs in his catalogue, but the deeper cuts too. The woozy ‘Mantra’, from ‘Seventeen Going Under’, slinks into the setlist early on, a chance for its writer to show off his croon, while spiky B-Side ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’ adds some bruising edge to proceedings.
Tonight’s gig largely lives up to its billing in Fender’s story, but there are moments that bring it down slightly. He – and everyone in the park – has to contend with Finsbury Park’s patchy sound quality which, depending on where you stand, can make performances on the main stage feel like mere background music, your neighbours’ conversations frustratingly more audible than anything coming through the PA. The live debut of the freshly released ‘Alright’ also disrupts the momentum of the set, nestled between the singalong favourites of ‘Spit Of You’ and ‘Play God’.
But, for the most part, tonight is a triumph – made resoundingly clear in its final throes. “This song went much further than we ever imagined it would do and that was all down to you so thank you so much,” Fender says by way of introduction for the penultimate, rousing version of ‘Seventeen Going Under’. As its first guitar chimes ripple over the crowd, the audience responds by setting off so many flares, the air in the park becomes thick with smoke and the scent of burning chemicals. It might be a hugely anthemic moment in the set, but it’s also one that’s massively emotional – the tens of thousands of people roaring along to its chanting vocals feel like a victory in the face of the dark times the lyrics document.
“London, thank youse so much, this has been fucking magic,” Fender enthuses afterwards, before he and his band rip into ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ and flames shoot from the stage, fireworks rocket into the sky and confetti explodes over the front rows. It’s a blistering finale that wraps things up perfectly and seemingly foreshadows Fender’s next steps, primed to level up from this huge moment to something utterly stratospheric.
Sam Fender played:
‘Will We Talk?’
‘Better Of Me’
‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’
‘Get You Down’
‘Spit Of You’
‘The Dying Light’
‘Seventeen Going Under’