It’s very easy to be snarky about James Blunt, and many people are. He’s an easy target — a very posh Englishman, so posh he was, before he became a singer, a captain in the Household Cavalry, who sings pleasing but somewhat anodyne, unchallenging pop music about women who haven’t quite loved him enough for his tastes, sung in a slightly troublingly high-pitched voice.
But that would be, ultimately, a not entirely fair reading of Blunt. That he has his detractors is well enough established; that his audience at Spark Arena last night were devoted fans was equally obvious. He played a set of modest length, maybe ninety minutes, twenty songs that drew strongly from his most recent album, 2017’s The Afterlove, which in turn draws strongly from his new-found friendship with Ed Sheeran; as he pointed out in his introduction to Make Me Better, “my wife says this is the most romantic song Ed Sheeran’s ever written for her,” so perhaps he really is, as he put it, “Ed’s bitch.” Blunt’s songwriting has evolved over the years since his 2004 debut Back To Bedlam, which found its influences in the songs of Phil Collins and Chris de Burgh, and which provided one of last night’s highlights in the shape of You’re Beautiful, the song which established Blunt as a significant talent and which was utterly inescapable in the final months of 2004.
Blunt’s more recent material has significantly more need of a full backing band; while Goodbye My Lover, from Back To Bedlam, featured Blunt, alone, at his piano, 1973, which built from an unremarkable plodder to a quite surprisingly pleasing, muscular and energetic pub-rock song, benefited from his four-piece accompaniment, allowing his voice to build from a thin, near-falsetto warble to something considerably more full-bodied and arena-filling and impressive. What on record might sound a touch insipid or uninspired is transformed on stage; pleasant but unremarkable songs, now invested with considerably more energy and immediacy, find a new dimension of urgency and engagement.
It was an enjoyably easy concert, then. There’s not always an enormous amount of substance to Blunt’s music — You’re Beautiful, for example, while a lovely song, is ultimately a flimsy thing — the man himself has enormous presence on stage, more than one might expect considering he is, as he pointed out at some length, a smaller man. Indeed, Blunt’s between-songs patter, delivered in a breathless gasp that reminded me of nothing quite as much as Petyr Baelish, are as much a part of the show as his music. Renowned for snarky comebacks on his Twitter feed, Blunt was clearly enjoying connecting with his audience. Setting Spark Arena up for theatre seating, even though it meant a significantly reduced capacity, was an effective move — his music clearly suits a smaller venue, and his energy and enthusiasm do a good job of providing a very enjoyable evening’s entertainment. He’ll be at the Horncastle Arena in Christchurch tomorrow night — if you’re a fan, you’ll be there anyway, and if you’re not, maybe you should go and find out what all the fuss is about. You might well be quite pleasantly surprised.