Sam Fender

TRNSMT festival, Glasgow Green


When Sam Fender first played TRNSMT in 2018 it was to a small early-afternoon crowd on the King Tut's stage, a black banner bearing his name about the only bells and whistles for an artist yet to release his first album.

He would return the following year, this time opening proceedings on the main stage, with a slightly bigger banner but not much in the way of fanfare.

Four years later the 29-year-old is top of the bill, striding on in the Glasgow rain having recently played two sold-out shows at St James’ Park in his native Newcastle. Fender spent part of his childhood in the Scottish Borders – can he rise to the challenge in what is a secondary homecoming of sorts?

It appears his equipment can't, at least initially, as a guitar change is required following opener 'Will We Talk?'.

"Classic," Fender smiles. "First time we've ever headlined a festival..."

That's followed by 'Getting Started' and 'Dead Boys', the single which earned the singer-songwriter mainstream attention. Written about the high rate of male suicide in his native North Shields, it's an unlikely festival singalong but one with a poignant and timely message. "We close our eyes, learn our pain/nobody ever could explain/all the dead boys in our home town," he sings to a crowd which is far from dominated by young men but certainly largely populated by them.

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Bruce Springsteen is the most prominent influence – the piano of ‘The Dying Light’, the saxophone on ‘The Borders’ – but to his credit it’s not one Fender tries to hide. Indeed, introducing the latter song in that 2019 set he wryly declared: “this is basically another Bruce Springsteen rip-off”. That self-deprecation belies what may be his greatest song to date, a five-minute epic culminating the kind of British street violence The Boss could never evoke: “you pin me to the wall and smash the bottle/your eyes a door to hell and all within”.

It’s deployed early, with Fender telling the crowd he spent "some of the best times of my life" in Scotland and confirming "this is my second home".

The Herald: Sam Fender performs at TRNSMT festivalSam Fender performs at TRNSMT festival (Image: Colin Mearns)

Bigger though the budget may be than his TRNSMT debut, the 29-year-old lets the music talk and largely eschews any theatrics, jets of fire on 'Spice' to accompany a chant of "f*** the Tories" being around the limit of his flamboyance.

His upbringing is mined again on 'Spit of You', a beautiful ode to his father and their difficult relationship. As the opening chords play a voice in the crowd declares "aye my dad was a b*****d too" but Fender is altogether more kind, the song accompanied by a montage of its subject and author.

There’s a rare airing for another Scotland-inspired track, ‘Angel In Lothian’, a highlight from second album Seventeen Going Under. Fender has performed it just six times before now, twice in Glasgow.

It appears we're running late as the singer introduces it by declaring "encores are stupid" before performing it solo while the band takes a breather.

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A cover of 'The Modern Leper' by Frightened Rabbit follows as the rain starts to teem down but there's no dampening the enthusiasm of the Glasgow crowd.

After mass singalongs to 'Saturday' and 'Seventeen Going Under', Fender declares "let's do the one that got us into this whole mess" before strumming out the opening chords of 'Hypersonic Missiles'.

Another mass pogo ensues, and the crowd will be belting out the bridge long after they've left the Green, but there's depth here too as the masses sing back about kids in Gaza being bombed and the aloof nature of politics: "they all do the same only the names change, honey".

As the ticker tape rains down and the fireworks go off, how many in the crowd will reflect on what they're singing? Do the themes of mental health, poverty, and violence from earlier in the set cut through with the shirtless, bucket-hatted section of the crowd?

It's impossible to say, what's for sure is that Fender has knocks it out the park with his first festival headline set.

Should he continue his ascent, we may well look back on this triumphant moment in much the same way that first daylight TRNSMT appearance is remembered today.