Peter Howell, Toronto Star
It was a two-bands-in-one event that Manchester sextet James presented over the weekend in two sold-out nights at the Opera House.
James is a folk band. James is also a dance-pop band. And the way the group convincingly shifted between the two styles was tribute both to its skill at reinventing itself, and to the crack musicianship of its players.
The group has been around since the early ’80s, almost as long as fellow Mancunians New Order. But whereas New Order nailed down a moody, dance-rock sound early on, the James gang has constantly experimented, swelling from its original four members up to seven, more recently becoming an even six-pack.
They’ve dropped horns from the lineup and stripped down to acoustic basics for their superb new album, Laid, encouraged by timely advice from admirer Neil Young and producer Brian Eno.
The band has a new confidence and focus that was seen, heard and felt right off the top at the first show Saturday, as James confidently tore into “Out To Get You”.
Standing festival style in a line at the front of the stage, dimly lit by blue lights that barely revealed faces, this was a group determined to subvert individual stardom in favor of team strength, although each member shone in his own right.
Singer Tim Booth poured on the emotion, with a voice and tousle-haired stage presence that mixed the messianic intensity of pre-Zoo TV Bono with the vulnerability of ’60s hippie guru Donovan.
Drummer David Baynton Power and bassist Jim Glennie held down a tight rhythm section, with Baynton Power maintaining a tribal beat with brushs and sticks, driving out demons at the end of “Ring The Bells” and throughout the early anthem “Sit Down”.
Lead guitarist Larry Gott handled both six-and-12-string acoustics and a Stratocaster electric with equal assurance, adding chiming, stirring runs and fills to songs like “Sometimes”, “P.S.” and “Say Something”.
Guitarist/violinist Saul Davies (he’s particularly impressive on violin, especially for “Johnny Yen”) and keyboard player Mark Hunter completed the winning team.
The switch to dance-pop came five songs in with “Gold Mother”, complete with a colorful slide show, blinding lights (but still not on the band) and Booth singing through a bullhorn. It was a vision true to the band’s roots in the Ecstasy-fuelled “Madchester” club scene, and a sound that explained why Toronto club act Rail T.E.C. was chosen as the well-received opening act.
And for the James gang, it was just like business as usual, a switching of gears without skipping a beat. The debut of the experimental new “Honest John” late in the set, with its industrial beats and renewed bullhorn bleats, indicated James is ready and willing to pursue this direction more in the future, after it enjoys its current predominantly acoustic phase.
The band is apparently also enjoying this tour, judging by the choice of the rarely played early hit “Come Home” for the encore, which included another crowd-pleaser, “Frustration”.
If the term “folk rave” hasn’t been coined yet, it should be after seeing what James is up to.
No longer six characters in search of an author, this is a group that has found itself, and a distinctive, unified sound.