Want to front a chart-topping band? You’ll need more than a distinct voice. You’ll need to be a cheerleader, inciting the crowd to wave their arms or sing along in unison, like it was their idea in the first place. You’ll need so much energy that standing still is simply not an option. You’ll need the swagger to pull off iconic rock star poses (like holding your guitar aloft while in silhouette), without a hint of irony. And you’ll need the sincerity to deliver passionate monologues that celebrate both unity and self-acceptance.
In short, you’ll need to be Sam Harris. He’s a frontman as mercurial as the songs he performs with X Ambassadors, a band as capable of pairing a chunky Van Halen guitar riff with a sax solo, as belting out a soul anthem. Clearly not content with just recreating the pristine sound of their 2015 debut album VHS on stage, the quartet let their songs breathe and their collective talents take full flight.
Harris’ older brother Casey is a prodigious keyboard player, regardless of whether he’s laying down bluesy organ vibes, twinkling synths, or flamboyant piano flourishes. Harris’ college friend Adam Levin is a swinging drum player, as capable of the stomping beats of Loveless as the more subtle shuffle of Joyful, a majestic, not-yet-released ballad of gospel proportions that transforms ULU into a glowing sea of mobile phones.
Touring guitarist Russ Flynn oozes the bassline of the R&B groover Hang On with as much confidence as the fiery Gibson SG solo he unleashes on morning-after rocker Low Life or the fuzzy distortion that dirties up a suitably rowdy Jungle.
But it’s the boundless singer and multi-instrumentalist who still comes out on top. On the irrepressible Gorgeous, dedicated to all the pretty people of London, he not only plays noodly lead guitar but breaks out a Prince-perfect falsetto. The sensual Naked (about learning to be vulnerable in a relationship and/or just stripping off) opens with the frontman on sax, while Renegades (with a powerful introduction about celebrating diversity) ends with him pounding Levin’s drums.
Ahead Of Myself, the towering lead single of X Ambassadors’ upcoming second LP, allows Harris the vocalist to pay tribute to soul legends like Otis Redding and Ray Charles.
But it’s Hoping, released earlier this year to support the American Civil Liberties Union and performed solo tonight on an acoustic guitar, that truly reveals the magnificence of his voice. With all the charisma of ‘70s era Stevie Wonder, he croons “It’s time we tip the scales/ With the weight of the world on ourselves now” as the audience echo the refrain of “Keep on hoping”. The perfect balance of the personal and the political, the brazen and the beautiful, it’s just another reminder from Harris that the perfect frontman must be able to do it all.
Live review of X Ambassadors @ ULU by Nils van der Linden on 29th August 2017. Photos by Edyta K.