Words and Images by Rubie Barker
For Sam Fender, his band and fans in the room, this concert had been a long time coming. He was initially meant to perform in Cardiff in March 2020 but like so many other artists had to reschedule this show several times. Tickets had been sold out for months and resale tickets disappeared within minutes. Since he last performed in a pub in Cardiff he has released two number one albums, been invited to perform at Elton John’s Oscars 2020 afterparty where they performed ‘Will we talk?’ together and appeared in a BBC Breakfast interview where he admitted to being “really, really hungover”, a statement I expect many on stage that night repeated the next morning as they celebrated the end of an incredible tour.
Fender’s first appearance of the night came rather unexpectedly in the second song of his incredible support act Gang of Youths, as David Le’aupepe introduced us to ‘Fam Sender, one of the greatest musical talents to come out of this country’. As they played The angel of 8th ave. together on stage it was clear they had had the most incredible time on tour. As Sam left, the Australian rock band continued to treat us to some more incredible music as the crowd awaited the Geordie lads return.
For those who had been following the last few nights of his tour we had some idea about the entrance to the stage that the band would make, but watching them walk out dressed as stormtroopers to John Williams The Imperial March as Fender brandished a red lightsaber, the crowd erupted. (For those eager to know, I later found out his favourite Star Wars film is in fact Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope but he does also admit to really loving Rogue One). After a minute or so on stage channelling his inner Luke Skywalker, Fender put down the lightsaber and picked up the guitar to kick off the concert with Will We Talk?, a single from his first album in 2019.
From here though, he launched into the similarly upbeat but profound Getting Started, singing of resilience and struggle but hope, as we sang along to another brilliant chorus. Instead of launching straight into the next track, Fender took a minute to introduce it, Dead Boys, which he recalled as sadly ‘the same for many of your home towns’. Despite taking a far more melancholic tone, for me, it is one of the most memorable and poignant moments of the evening as every audience member recalled a tale of personal loss in unity.
Perhaps to give us a bit of time to recover, this was followed up by a few slower tracks like Mantra and All is on my Side. Joking to the audience, those who were there on a date were encouraged to hold one another close and to those who ‘bought tickets with an ex two years ago and still decided to come together’, he apologised. Despite performing in a packed out Arena, Sam always managed to address the crowd like we were all still his best friends sat in a small pub listening along to his songs.
He told us of one time he was in Cardiff when he went to The Doctor Who Experience ‘because I’m a proper f***ing nerd’, went to see Bob Dylan in this very venue and then does not remember a single bar or pub he went to after.
As the setlist turned back towards some more of his upbeat tracks, Fender called out for any Geordies in the audience to which a surprisingly large amount of people cheered, including a group of guys in front of us who had been waving a Newcastle United Flag above their heads for most of the songs up till this point. “Don’t youse think that Geordies and the Welsh have got the best accent in the UK?” he called out to resounding applause, “ some of the best musicians are from these ends”. He was clearly keen to big up the Welsh accent while he was spending some time in the capital.
Both ‘Spice’ and ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’ showed off both the energy of the whole band, but also their musical talents. Despite it being the last night of the tour, they were still delivering energetic riffs and incredible saxophone solos from the likes of Johnny “Blue Hat” Davis. “I wanna see some mosh pits now” Fender called out. And he was not disappointed, as within minutes not only were mosh pits forming all around the arena, but someone had decided to crowd surf. I think it’s fair to say that most on stage were surprised by the crowd’s reaction and someone shouted out for Sam Fender himself to be the next to crowd surf. After quickly pushing past that, his manager Owain Davies had appeared to possibly agree to in the encore…
Before the encore though, came the title single from this second album Seventeen Going Under, which at the time of writing has 40 million streams on Spotify and was named as BBC Radio 1’s ‘Hottest Record of the year’. The moment the guitar riff started the audience cheered, and most didn’t miss a word. But the line ‘I was far too scared to hit him, but I would hit him in a heartbeat now’ was particularly belted out, maybe down to its success on Tiktok but the poetry and power of the line should not be dismissed.
After acknowledging how stupid it is that they all go off and come back on, Fender left and re-entered the stage alone to cover Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark. In Leeds the night before he talked about how much he gets compared to Springsteen, but his love for his music is clear and this version is undeniably his own. Sadly we were only treated to one cover but the slowed-down rendition of this Springsteen classic which according to Setlist.fm Fender has played close to 50 times at his concerts, was a moment that truly no one there would have wanted to miss, highlighting not just the powerful vocals that had been shown all night but also his guitar skills.
But the night ended with the title song to his debut album, Hypersonic Missiles. What was most striking in the encore though was the smiles on the faces of every member of the band who was on stage, especially as we were introduced to every single one, including Dean Thompson (or Deano) the lead guitarist, who he has known since age 12. From the moment the guitar riff started, the crowd were chanting along, pausing before the lyrics started to ask if we wanted to crowd surf some stormtroopers while singing about getting the inflatables out to the crowd. The last song of the night really served as a reminder as to why Sam Fender is becoming a defining name in this new era of British music, bringing humour and authenticity to his concerts, although he was admittedly struggling to sing without laughing at points as a stormtrooper floated across the front of the crowd.
I was lucky enough afterwards to be invited to the afterparty, where I got to chat to him about his favourite Star Wars film, which if he was forced to pick would be ‘A New Hope’ although he does have an appreciation for Rogue One and about how close he was to going to University to study English Literature. Although for most of the time I sat chatting and drinking cider with the friend I’d brought along, too starstruck and nervous to talk to anyone, once we were chatting to him, Owain Davies and other members of the crew, we could have been in the pub with old school friends, not stood chatting to a guy who has been recently nominated for 3 BRIT awards in 2022. It was an incredible end to an incredible night.