Live Review: Sam Fender @ Cellar

As I made the mad cycle from Iffley to Cellar at 8.15 on a Monday evening, swim kit in my bag and my hair still wet, the main thing going through my head was “this gig had better not be shit”. And after getting over the slightly jarring experience of being stamped and waved in to Cellar (“we’re on the guest list, actually”) with the sun technically yet to set, I have to say that Sam Fender did not disappoint.

Coming on to the stage Fender most certainly fit in with the Cellar crowd (or what crowd would have been there had there been more than the 40-strong audience in attendance). With a baggy button-down shirt, cropped black jeans, ankle boots, a floppy quiff and a skin fade, you’d be forgiven for thinking Fender had simply turned up four hours early for an indie night. Once he got started, however, Fender was anything but your standard indie poser. As was to be expected from an entry on the BBC’s Sound of 2018 ‘Ones to Watch’ (heralded by no less than Annie Mac herself), Fender gave a wholehearted, raucous, and engaging – if at times not fully polished – performance.

Fender’s tracks are not the classic singer-songwriter soppy bullshit that the British charts inexplicably adore so much (here’s looking at you, Sheeran). Instead, they’re rip-roaring indie anthems focusing on topics such as sexual abuse and government surveillance, without a single love ballad in sight. His repertoire seemed largely comprised of deep, grungy guitar riffs interspersed with sections of electronic percussive beats accompanied by melodic falsetto. Truly, it is his voice that really sets Fender apart from his compatriots. For sure, he has a definite knack for composition, which is shown in his tracks’ layering of heavy rhythms with punctuated melodies. However his vocal range, switching between a gritty husk and a wailing falsetto, sets his distinctive sound apart from the hordes of grunge/indie guitar bands. It’s only a shame that the slightly misbalanced levels of the set in general meant his vocals were at points drowned out by the screams of a somewhat gung-ho lead guitarist.

The striking vocals and in-your-face setlist were entirely matched by Fender’s stage presence. Backed by a bassist, lead guitarist, and drummer (with Fender himself on rhythm guitar and vocals), there was no mistaking the fact that he is a one-man act, making full use of the tiny Cellar stage and truly commanding the modest audience in attendance. Between tracks he toed the line between ignoring his audience and the all-too-common mistake of over banter with ease and confidence, clearly showing a genuine and endearing enthusiasm to be in Oxford for the first time.

My only disappointing take away from the evening, far from having anything to do with Fender’s performance itself, was the lack of attendance. As far as I’m concerned, the experience only served to show what great acts can be found in our smaller venues. I knew Sam Fender only by name before his gig, and his performance certainly proves that taking a chance on a ticket (costing less than a tenner!) to Cellar is something we should all be doing more frequently.

In short, Sam Fender gave a confident and assured performance, and is in my eyes unquestionably deserving of his place as one to watch for this year. When he asked me and a friend for a light as we stood on Cornmarket discussing his set, I couldn’t help but think that this was going to serve as an anecdote for the future, one to trot out from “before he became famous”.  Having been announced relatively high on the bill for several decent sized festivals this summer, including London’s Community and Citadel, I can only see him getting bigger and bigger as the year progresses.