George Ezra: Britain’s bard of blue-sky thinking

Most musicians are nighthawks. Should you wish to see one of these shady characters live, a little section of the New Yorker magazine has some sound advice. “Musicians and nightclub proprietors lead complicated lives,” runs the disclaimer in its Night Life listings section: “It’s advisable to check in advance to confirm arrangements.”

Singer-songwriter George Ezra is not a disreputable nighthawk: he allies himself with the larks and the doves. On this first of his two nights in London, the screens either side of the stage flash up a digital clock reading 06:59. As it turns to 7:00, a recording of the Radio 1 Breakfast Show host – and fellow son of Hertfordshire – Greg James announces “the songs of a beautiful man”.

This is Ezra clocking on, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, reversing the usual circadian rhythm where the sun sets on the working day, ties are loosened, a glass of something is poured, and the cool liquid yin of night holds sway.

A professional ray of sunshine, Ezra brings the glare of the daytime into the notional cool of the night. The stage for this arena tour set may feature low-lit, fringed Victorian lamps, but the arena is saturated with pastel lights and a backdrop of big windows, with virtual sunlight streaming in occasionally. As his biggest hit, saved for the end of the night, puts it: “I’ll be riding shotgun/ Underneath the hot sun.”

Ezra’s is summer fare, often reading like travel-core for entitled gap-year youth, all “bikini bottoms and lager tops”: plenty of Apollo and not much Dionysus.

Leading a six-strong band through his two No 1 albums, Ezra operates at a level of wholesome uncool with which, to his credit, he seems perfectly well-adjusted. Chris Martin, the granddaddy of nice British guys in music, used to bristle when Coldplay were dismissed as namby-pamby rather than louche and arty. Ezra is able to wink at the haters. The video for his latest single, Pretty Shining People, finds his output being analysed by a record company staffed by children. A wall-chart graph maps “catchiness” against “edginess”. The dearth of the latter sets off a big red alarm. But the kids are persuaded – they drop their sneery pretensions and dance around.

Watch the video for Pretty Shining People by George Ezra.

Ezra’s two No 1s peddle levels of blue sky not heard since Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine: also intentional. His stated purpose for Staying at Tamara’s, a comeback second album that has proved more popular than his first, 2014’s Wanted on Voyage, was to provide succour in an age of anxiety. “What a time to be alive if you’re prone to overthinking,” runs Pretty Shining People, before dissolving into a more banal chorus-conclusion “we’re all right together”. Ezra encourages the ostrich in all of us: “Don’t think about that stuff,” runs It Don’t Matter Now.

Provide succour it did, not least to the record company: if you’re not counting The Greatest Showman soundtrack (and we shouldn’t), Staying at Tamara’s was the biggest-selling album in Britain in 2018.

Straight white boys-next-door are doing exceptionally well at pop of late. You can’t help but notice the epidemic of singer-songwriters dominating British music, and the justified hand-wringing this has brought. Britain’s pop economy used to produce David Bowies and Kate Bushes and other such outre characters and sell them to vast numbers of people, runs the lament. You might blame our current bland singalong fare on a retrenchment in popular tastes that goes hand in hand with Brexit (in reality, it has always been with us), or – intriguingly – the ripple effect of the German pop market that sometimes leads ours, as my colleague Laura Snapes wrote last week. Either way, the numbers are very much in favour of unthreatening bards.

Tonight, the least threatening of them all just keeps turning up the UVA and UVB. A three-piece horn section bathes every song in even more vitamin D. Cavorting around, the brass add fanfares, a hint of ska or little frissons of South Africa (on Sugarcoat) or New Orleans to an already ebullient set, managing not to overplay, contributing just the right amount of texture and heft, never quite becoming cheesy.

George Ezra Performs At The O2 ArenaLONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 19:

Photograph: Matthew Baker/Getty Images

Even in a field full of nice guys, Ezra radiates charm. One of the rarely mentioned upsides of his high levels of positivity is that, even on his more troubled or low-key songs, he never overemotes, screwing his face up the better to gurn his “soulfulness”. He is a genial host, if perhaps a little too schmaltzy and formal at times. In the runup to Budapest, the big hit off his first album, he overexplains the concept of Inter-Railing. When he relaxes, however, you see why he hosts a well-loved podcast.

Ezra confesses to buying a bottle of rum off a stranger in a park, the better to medicate himself through watching Eurovision in Sweden (that’s why he never made it to Budapest originally: he got too trollied). The crowd cheers. “Don’t clap that! You’re better than that! Think of the children,” he grins. He had, he said, never watched Eurovision before. It’s just one hint that Ezra might not be as thoroughly banal as his detractors might imagine.

The other is his voice. Ever since he first appeared on the radar in 2013 with Did You Hear the Rain, people have remarked upon the big, sorrowful voice marinated in bourbon emanating from the body of a jolly twentysomething from the home counties, a baritone redolent of a barrel-chested bluesman (Ezra has cited Lead Belly and Howlin’ Wolf as formative influences). He has been known to play Dylan covers with his dad and his friends.

It’s a bit of a cliche, talking about a voice you could listen to reading the phone book, but it’s Ezra’s resonant rumble that makes his music intriguing. When the jolly veneer slips a little, on Saviour, he can pull off a few minutes of atmospheric intensity that seem like the work of a completely different guy. Beyond the feelgood anthems, there might just be a more interesting artist, politely biding his time.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.