For those who attended last night’s gig it was clear they were all fans. How? Because there were a large number of lesser-known new songs and past hidden gems that made up an intriguing set list. Yet the crowd seemed to know every chord and lyric. Going by their singing, chanting, and dancing there wouldn’t have been too many antiperspirants living up to their claims on the night. Simply put James were brilliant!
I hadn’t heard of the band James (by name) back in the day, but realised I loved them when a mate of mine Paul Raddich gave me their ‘best of’ CD many years ago. I found there were a large number of tracks that I already knew but had never linked to the band. Since then I have been a firm fan and avid follower of their later work.
I saw James live for the first time when they graced our shores almost two years ago to the day and just after Donald Trump became President. This time I made the extra investment of buying a ticket that allowed access to their sound check and Q&A session and, with 49 other punters, counted down the days to their show.
After a short wait at the doors in the early evening, we were able to sit in on the Manchester band's sound check, hear some of their stories, and ask a few questions. The short three-track session was intimate and friendly with the whole band chipping in. The eight-piece band filled the Powerstation beautifully. With cello, trumpet, extra percussion, two guitars and bass making their sound so much richer for it.
I have always loved Of Monsters & Heroes & Men off Hey Ma their comeback album after a long hiatus. Knowing they wouldn’t be playing it at this gig, I asked Tim Booth personally how this song came about, as it was one of my most favourite James tracks. For some reason I had always thought it was a father-and-son story and it turned out I was spot on. It was inspired by The Road, the 2006 novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy. The book was a post-apocalyptic tale, based on the journey of a father and his young son across a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that had destroyed most of civilisation. It’s a dark tale yet the song’s lyrics are uplifting... and with the knowledge of what inspired it, the chorus “Either way I’m in awe of you, either way, we’ll survive” makes perfect sense.
A few questions later and one more song, then it was over at the exclusive sound check. It’s not often you get the chance to see a band so upfront and personal and while they were shaking off their jet lag (and blaming their minor musical errors on it) one answer to a question really stuck in my mind... What support bands Booth loved the most and why? His honest reply was “I don’t normally see them because I have my nap while they play as the body knows it’s going to be put through the ringer later that night”. Brilliant especially given the likes of Coldplay and Radiohead were early supports.
Tablefox kicked off the night and started their short set with Something Better. Played with extra vigour, it resonated with the large crowd from the first back beat and got things underway perfectly. It was the third time I’ve seen them live and this was their best outing yet. They relished playing to their largest audience to date and gave it their all. The very full Powerstation enjoyed every song along the way.
A nice little stand out was their rendition of Heroes by David Bowie and they did the song proud. Clinton Bell’s vocals were just superb and had the whole floor singing along with him. Tablefox showcased their new single Like a River and, after another couple of tracks, finished with Hold Fire, which is always their last goodbye. It’s a cracking good song with drums thumping and soaring vocals and they even managed to throw in a bridge of Boys Don’t Cry by The Cure, for good measure. If you haven’t seen these guys live, you should.
After a short break, James was welcomed to the stage. But some key players were missing. Andy Diagram began Lose Control, off Gold Mother, playing his soaring trumpet upstairs amongst the enthusiastic mezzanine crowd, and paved the way for lead singer Tim Booth to saunter in downstairs from the front door, taking the crowd by surprise. It’s not often you see a gig start like this and it typifies what James bring. Expect the unexpected.
The set list was quite a surprise as well. This was not a night of greatest hits. More a celebration of the new album Living in Extraordinary Times (which I reviewed earlier in the year for Radio 13) and some hidden gems from lesser known albums like Whiplash, Gold Mother, and One Man Clapping.
It takes a brave band to play six songs off a new album... But as Booth said, James wanted to give the crowd some variation to the show they put on a couple of years ago and revisit some other earlier classics not played at their last gig here. So no Laid, no Getting Away With It All, and no Destiny Calling. That said there were plenty of hits as well including How was It For You, Come Home, She’s A Star, Sit Down, Tomorrow and Sometimes. This shows the depth of James and their catalogue, with some 25 million albums sold worldwide, it’s no wonder they can carry off such a set list and still leave the audience wanting more.
Last night's show was intimate, electrifying, and insightful with little ditties around a particular song or time in their career. There was plenty of sneer as well, especially from the new songs that highlight their shock and distaste of the current political scene in the USA. Hank, Living In Extraordinary Times, and What’s It All About, captured their feeling and sentiment superbly.
That said, the stand out song of the night was the first encore Many Faces. It has a simple acoustic start, with trumpet wailing in the background, but then the band flows into the song and take you to the key statement and chorus “There is only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here”. I think it surprised the audience how well they embraced a clutch of words that captured the times so completely. So much so, as it neared the end the band let the crowd carry the song, while Booth just stared out to the crowd, almost in awe at how they picked it up and delivered it back to him. It was an incredibly moving experience for all including the band, and it may have even brought a tear to the eye of the lead singer.
A significant contribution to the night was the sound and lighting. The sound was rich and big without having to blow the speakers. That is quite a skill in itself but makes a huge difference to the live experience and allowed Booth’s vocals to shine across a textured landscape of sound and movement.
The lighting too was almost like an instrument playing its part in the feel of the night. As our photographer of the night Reuben Raj said later, it had none of that "too-cool-for-school, backlit bullshit lighting" and I couldn’t agree with him more. This is why, when you put all these components together along with the incredible musicianship and passion, the whole band exudes without having to try, their live act is one of the best there is.
This was most evident with one of the band’s early career tracks Stutter, off the live album One Man Clapping. It clearly brought back some memories of where it all started, and every band member seemed to lose just a little control during the song reliving perhaps days gone by. It was a cool moment and enjoyed by all the true fans of James, which the gig was clearly packed with, from one side of the wall to the other.
Booth engaged regularly with the audience, standing on shoulders while singing and then weaving through the ecstatic crowd, sharing a moment that anyone who was close by would be telling their family, mates and colleagues about for years to come. You don’t see that happen too often these days but with everything else that happened on the night it was the icing on the cake.
Closing the gig with Tomorrow and Sometimes, they almost took the top off the Powerstation... not because of the band but because of the audience singing and, I might add, in tune and in full glory to finish off one of the most memorable gigs I have been to in a long time and that’s saying something.
James today are just as relevant as they were when they first started, back in 1982. Their energy and passion would leave many younger groups in despair and out of breath. This was not a night of looking back, it was a night shining the light on current issues, and at times it almost felt like being embraced in an evangelistic sermon, with the congregation left wanting more but feeling happier than when they came through the church doors. I suspect many, like myself, cannot wait to attend the next one.
As a footnote, Booth mentioned his house was at risk with the terrible wild fires tearing up and down California at the moment. His family have been evacuated and on behalf of Radio 13, we wish Tim and his family all the best and hope all is well when they get back home.
More images by Reuben Raj from SomeBizarreMonkey can be found in the photo gallery further below.
- Lose Control
- Living in Extraordinary Times
- Waltzing Along
- How Was It For You
- Come Home
- Feet of Clay
- What’s It All About
- She’s A Star
- Sit Down
- Many Faces