A few weeks ago, I went to Rogers Arena in Vancouver to see a concert by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. In all the advertising, it looked like GHFB was billed as the main act, with Snow Patrol opening. Turns out it was Jake Bugg opening for GHFB, opening for Snow Patrol. It turned out to be one of the strangest shows I’ve seen.
I wanted to see Gallagher because I never got to see Oasis and thought this would be the closest I would get to experiencing that huge (and endangered) arena-band energy and huge ego-show controversy that the Gallagher brothers managed to generate at their peak. Tension can be a powerful attractor in popular music. And it was present in Vancouver.
Just another note about the evening—before I introduce you to Jake Bugg. GHFB played first (after Bugg) in a barely half-full arena already cordoned off to make it smaller. Gallagher played a crisp set of little more than an hour, just a few Oasis songs and no encore. OK, but not great, and he managed some angry, focused sniping at a group of drunks at the front of the stage. When GHFB finished, the crew came out and tore down their modest stage set, including lighting, during the long intermission while an elaborate set for Snow Patrol was set up. Many people left, clearly having come just to see Gallagher. I have to admit that I wasn’t feeling very inspired to wait for Snow Patrol either, so I joined the others and left. Still, the evening wasn’t wasted.
A small yet significant benefit, though I had no idea it would be important, was a glimpse at the young singer/songwriter Jake Bugg, who walked onto stage alone and played a few songs with just his acoustic guitar, opening for Gallagher and Snow Patrol, against the backdrop of GHFB’s equipment and banner. His was an enjoyable set, and even the more than usual tense audience were respectful while he played. I heard his music firsthand and liked it immediately. Only later did I find out how much media attention was being directed his way.
Last month Jake Bugg appeared on the cover of the 17 November issue of NME. The magazine, like many web stories about Bugg, sets him up as a kind of new Bob Dylan, an enemy of “plastic pop” music, a defiant young artist in the lineage of the Gallagher brothers, emerging from working class Britain as they did in the early 1990s. The comparison, no doubt, sells magazines. Bugg is 18 years old. The interviews I’ve read seem superficial and forced, and I sense the media wants him to be more than he is right now. A web search turns up dozens of stories, reviews, heart-throb photos, and interviews with Bugg.
What I saw of him on stage was impressive. What I see in the media is confusing. It seems risky to project so much for one so young, talented as he is. Bob Dylan didn’t have to come into his moment with a monolithic Bob Dylan image to be compared to. Dylan arrived as an original, changing as he grew into his own legend. Bugg arrives as a protégé of Noel Gallagher and as a “new” Dylan. With this heavy media lifting going on, all we have to make up our minds is Bugg’s four-track EP, “Two Fingers,” to talk about (a full-length 14-track self-titled LP was released on 15 October in the UK, and can be found as an import from some online sources—a US release presumably is in the works now). And already other artists are doing “tribute” EPs, karaoke EPs, and extended DJ club mixes to celebrate Bugg’s initial four released songs in the US. Four songs.
So, why write about four songs? Seeing this young, solitary player walk alone onto an arena stage in a huge place like Rogers Arena is arresting, and that’s why I want to say a few things about his record. It takes confidence, for sure, and enough songs to catch people’s interest (playing live, Bugg sings a few other songs from his “earlier” song-writing career). I think it’s a little premature to be labeling Jake another Dylan, or even the next Noel Gallagher.
His style is quietly rebellious, an acoustic storyteller in the same tradition as hundreds, if not thousands, of singer songwriters in the public eye right now. I wanted to write about Bugg’s EP because I’m impressed with the level of his self-composure and confidence. His songs, so far, speak of getting out of presumably bad places with family and dead-end towns, heartbreak and failed dreams, the eternal subjects of so much popular music. His style and these subjects attract people to compare him to past rebels. Musically speaking, I don’t think there’s any new ground broken here. But with so little to go on (I’m working on tracking down the UK vinyl release), I think it remains to be seen what kind of rebel heart beats within Bugg.
The natural “hit” is “Two Fingers,” but all four songs on this EP are interesting and worth a listen. People drink “white lightning” in their kitchens and they fight with their families and their hard lives and circumstances, the tough choices people have to live with regardless of the outcomes. A clever title, representing the measure of a drink as well as the defiant British “fuck you” gesture to the life he presumably escaped from. British people know the hard meaning of cheap “white lightning” as much as any culture. “Trouble Town” is about what it sounds like: life on a benefit check, no matter how old you are, is a precarious and joyless way to live. Staying in such a life can be more dangerous than leaping into the unknown and trying to start over someplace new, even if you fail. I personally like “Slide” the most: a sweet song about love and heartbreak. Somehow the young sound of Bugg’s voice fits his lyrics perfectly. The final track, “Country Song,” is sweet, too, and set in a more peaceful rural setting. It functions almost as a coda to this very short EP, perhaps, though more in the literary vein than in the musical vein. Musically, it flows with the rest of the songs. But taken lyrically, it’s not as biting or defiant or bitter.
I think the next few steps Bugg takes in his career will be the most difficult, even more difficult than standing alone on stage at Rogers Arena. There will be enormous pressure for him to measure up to the tremendous hype the media has laid on his shoulders. Few artists have this much attention thrust upon them at such an early age or stage of their careers, or on so few recorded songs. I hope Noel Gallagher stays in Jake’s life after this tour, inspiring and supporting his continued growth. At 45, Gallagher knows what it’s like to grow older in the media storm that shapes and breaks careers as the subject of entertainment. But succeeding as an artist today is about more than eyeballs on websites. It’s still about the music. “Two Fingers” is an impressive starting point. But now that Bugg is out of his working class hard times, he still has to write cool songs and reach new listeners. The next songs might just be harder for Bugg to find than any defiant step he took to break free of his anonymity. But there’s talent and boldness here. My guess is he’ll do just fine.