It’s 8pm on a Wednesday and Jake Bugg cuts a completely unassuming figure on stage at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Dressed entirely in black, I almost thought he was one of the crew, doing a last-minute check of the mics, until a feral fan somewhere at the front began bellowing. Peering through his signature fringe, Bugg looked faintly embarrassed, waiting for the whale-like call of ‘I LooOVeE YoOoU’ to peter out. It didn’t. Instead, a typically Scottish welcome overpowered it, as roughly 3,000 voices hollered an appropriated version of his name in tandem.
‘Jakey Jakey Bugg’ is a musician first and foremost. That doesn’t mean he’s a natural-born entertainer. Over his hour and a half-long set, I don’t think he addresses the audience more than twice, and it’s no bad thing. It’s immediately clear that this is about the music, and after all, isn’t that the point?
I first saw Jake Bugg when I was fourteen, when the Nottingham-born singer’s first album was released, at the age of seventeen. His haircut isn’t the only thing that hasn’t changed since 2012 – his ability to command a room remains the same, and I half wonder if he’s wearing the same outfit. He draws an impressively diverse crowd: there are grannies having the time of their lives in the seated circle, while teeny-boppers exchange nervous glances with each other in the pit. Beside me, a disgruntled husband looks on despairingly as his wife has a fine old time dancing in the aisle.
I think he feels slighted by her obvious, unfettered attraction to the man on stage, but who can blame her? Her husband’s grumpy demeanour just doesn’t harbour the same melancholic appeal as Bugg’s, whose hands run effortlessly up and down the guitar in a way I just can’t imagine his would. This is where Bugg is at his best, teasing out guitar solos that somehow just don’t translate on record. I realise a whole new appreciation for instrumentals.
Bugg’s first song is from his second album, and it sets the tone for the rest of the set. Me and You is a brooding bop, characteristically Bugg, and the audience is mad for it. It’s not the danciest number of the evening, but it gets the crowd going. A smattering of old favourites is cleverly interspersed with newer tunes in a line-up that keeps the audience in a state of eager anticipation. In a way, the setlist works as inadvertent crowd control; with soulful renditions of Note to Self and Two Fingers tempering the effect of stomping classics like Slumville Sunrise and Lightning Bolt that get everyone up dancing.
Bugg is one of few artists today who can stand alone; he doesn’t need flashy outfits, dance routines or convoluted stage design to deliver. That’s not what he’s about. His voice is as good, if not better, live, for the palpable emotion behind it, and his guitar solos are intoxicating.
He doesn’t seem to care for the noise associated with his celebrity, and he doesn’t feed into it either, powering through his setlist instead of pandering to the audience with meaningless sweet nothings. If that sounds apathetic, it isn’t – there’s no lack of feeling in Bugg’s performance. In Broken, his vocals soar. It’s almost as if the intensity gets to him, because his voice falters at the bridge, but if it’s a tense moment it doesn’t hold him back. If anything, he seems bolstered, determined for it not to happen again, and it doesn’t. In fact, to my ears, his whole vocal performance is as close to flawless as I can imagine, and it appears utterly effortless too. For the rawness in his voice and lyrics, it’s no mean feat that Bugg remains so cool.
He finishes on Hold Tight, a newer track and self-proclaimed favourite. In it, he muses on legacy, time, and the fleeting nature of life.
Bugg doesn’t need to worry about how he’ll be remembered. For everyone in this crowd, it’ll be for making timeless music that speaks to the soul, no matter what age you are.
With thanks to Eilidh Boyd-Tuckett for this review.