Local Hero: How Sam Fender Constructed His St James Park Triumphs

Clash chats to the behind-the-scenes crew...

Sam Fender is about halfway through his Friday set when he pauses for a minute or two, “When we started this band, it was the subject of a joke.. that we would play St. James’, one day.” 

Being there, feeling the buzz in the stadium, it seems hard to grasp Fender’s mindset then, it’s such a confident display. The past few years have seen the emergence of the indie rock musician, who’s reinstating the raw element in music. 

Last weekend shows how the much loved North Shields musician can gather the people of his hometown and those that have travelled from other parts of the country, it was fans coming together to take part in the homecoming of their hero. 

With two shows pinned at St. James’ Park, the home of Newcastle F.C., where he’s scheduled to play in front of 100,000 people, the iconic venue epitomises not just the scale of Sam Fender’s popularity, it facilitates the portrayal of the person behind the music, it maps his roots and story and celebrates the authenticity of the songs and lyrics. 

A moving, rousing and intimate live ordeal, where fresh narratives of the city are built, inside and outside the stadium, key components are brought to life by means of video footage, stills, pyrotechnics, confetti and lighting. 

The creative plan to deliver a communal experience with a vibe similar to a festival, rather than a standard concert in a venue, is developed by Sam Tozer, Creative Director and Stage Designer, Harrison Smith and George Thomson of UDC (The Unlimited Dream Company), who lead the production of stage visuals such as live video, stills and more. 

With a close eye on locality, the crowd takes centre stage with the singer, and the team are keen to ensure everyone feels part of the adventure in terms of sound and picture. “It is about a communityit’s more than a performance,” Tozer says. “St. James’ Park shows it isn’t just about the music, it’s the atmosphere and the image we want to portray, with Sam.” 

The recognisable black and white colours of The Magpies are noticeable everywhere, and the same counts for the Brown Ale logo, which is printed on tees and banners, and is so deeply embedded in the city. The strong sense of community, the bond between people of Newcastle, is intense and is felt everywhere. The atmosphere is feverish, loaded with joy and excitement. 

The working class roots, the dark layers of his music, Newcastle’s industrial heritage, it’s all mirrored in the creative depiction and delivered using technology such as live drone footage and visual media including a string of manually scanned photos to document songwriter’s life.  

The illustration of some of the issues the musician has dealt with is critical. Using parts of previous work with the musician, Tozer incorporates asymmetrical stage design, as he wants to bring the dark metal, industrial feel to the stage. “People can feel some of the emotion that Sam has tackled on previous albums,” he says. “We include the brightness and the colour used within the content to contrast it with the hard industrial space.”

A succinctly curated setlist reflects the celebration of his homecoming. George Thomson knows it makes sense to apply honest and tangible language to go with it. “Sam’s music is very raw, real and textured, not overly produced and synthetic. We wanted to take the same approach with the visuals, apply a human feel, and not be too computer driven.” 

Keen to build on the personal aspect in the production, there is a shared understanding of the importance of describing the general picture as well as the detail. To optimise believability, and to successfully deliver the live music production, they delved into the songs and lyrics for an accurate and nuanced interpretation. 

Next step in the process has been to build and think of ideas for each, with the aim to create exceptional moments for the fans. “The culture around the tracks and their origin is key,” says Thomson. “To fit into the overall show, there had to be a balanced flow of colour, energy and pace. Bringing things down a bit, we also bring everything up to a higher tempo, and we keep playing with those levels throughout the show.”

The sense of agility is evident from the performance, where the play with light and shade, high energy is matched by quiet intimacy. Showing a wide palette of cultural and emotional reference points, there’s the cover version of fellow Geordie Mark Knopfler’s ‘Going Home: Theme of the Local Hero’ to mark the shared local connection, while ‘Dead Boys’ and ‘Spit of You’ are bare and emotionally tender. Elsewhere, ‘Getting Started’ and ‘Howden Aldi Death Queue’ lift the audience and make them jump, with a heavy concentration of mosh pits.

Tozer’s interest in capturing the local character close up, and show the soul, comes across. It’s an electrifying connection, as Fender’s ability to connect with the fans is second to none. “It’s a very genuine person with very genuine fans. That inclusiveness between Sam and the people, catching those moments, they are all about the crowd, everyone’s back and forth, conversations with Sam and them. It’s special.”

There are several standalone, split seconds, it’s an unreal event made up of many micro ones. The cinematic, filmic quality of the footage underlines it and adds an extra dimension, it’s not just cameras that film, striking wide views unfold. 

“We talk about content,” Thomson says. “It shouldn’t just be a large cinema screen because it takes away people’s focus, they default into viewing it in that way. What we do is only supposed to be complimentary to the performance and provide some focus on it, not be a distraction.”

Smith agrees, “It was great for us to work with Sam’s design because it gave something spatially exciting to play off, it didn’t just give us that big, flat TV look. A sense of direction and dynamism were needed that we could use in the content to create that epic sense of scale, enhanced by the shape.”

The sense of space is felt. The stadium is packed, yet it feels spacious, the creative team’s work to enhance that sensation for the audience, yields the desired result. Thomson talks about the panoramic image of Newcastle that appears on screen, how details of the city, closely associated with Fender’s life follow, and everything fits into the broader design vision. 

The graphic appearing during ‘Play Dead’ is in fact a poster, but it looks like a piece of footage. Onlookers see a shift from graphic to a camera zoom in. “I wanted to make it even epic and bring the crowd in, zoom in on the stadium, and use the drone for this. When the graphic suddenly is live, it brings the fans back into the content, which itself is a product of the songwriter’s background, and what brought Sam to where he is in his career today.”

A mesmeric few minutes, the combined use of song and drone also proves an effective way to re-inject the live energy, and effectively reset the tone, while the visual blends with the sound, the climax continues to build, as it follows the linear nature of the song.  

Everything has gone to plan. It’s hard, but time has come to wrap up what’s been an enormous feast of sound, video and stage presence, a remarkable encounter, as the event closes with ‘Hypersonic Missiles’. 

UK music’s favourite Geordie has proven he can deliver a stadium concert, as Sam Fender’s performance does way more than meet expectation, it has shown his readiness for large scale gigs, as the remarkable upward career trajectory he finds himself on, no doubt will continue. 

Words: Susan Hansen
Photography: Luke Avery, Steve Sroka

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine