Back for the third time since the beginning of the year, James sold out its Sunday show at the Riviera Theatre in a mere 10 minutes. That’s not too bad for a band whose “overnight success” took a mere 11 years.
“I knew we’d never break (in the U.S.) until we played live,” says lead singer-songwriter Tim Booth. “It took seven years of gigging in England before we made it there. And we didn’t start playing live in America until 2 1/2 years ago. So we never expected anything to happen for a long time.”
For a while it looked as if nothing would happen here at all. Although James’s record company cranked the hype machine in full gear to tout the band’s U.S. debut tour, the group failed to crack the radio playlists. But the six-man group remained determined and kept right on touring, expanding its fan base with each show.
Pretty soon the fans were calling radio stations requesting James standards such as “Sit Down.” And “overnight,” alternative programmers realized James indeed was very radio-friendly.
The release of James’ current CD, “Laid,” has won over its share of critics as well. Produced by Brian Eno, the album is the group’s strongest collection of work yet. Booth’s lyrics are pensive and passionate, exploring sex and religion with both awe and ease. As for the group’s haunting music – which is equal parts rock, folk and pop – it stands up well to Eno’s trademark ambient production.
“We’ve wanted to work with Brian for a long time now,” said Booth, who asked Eno to produce James’ 1986 debut “Stutter.” “But he’d always been busy (though he said) he liked us and promised to get back to us. So when we were getting ready to do (`Laid’), I sent him a demo tape of some songs and a playful letter saying, `Come out and play with us,’ and he rung me up one Saturday morning to chat. We talked abut perfume, punk and cyberpunk and at the end of it, he said, `I’d like to make your record.’ ”
Thanks to “Laid,” which already has produced hits in the title track and “Say Something,” the group has name recognition now. Their popularity is such that they’ve appeared on all the hot late night talk shows. And no less than David Letterman gushed after the band performed “Laid.” Letterman specifically directed his kudos to Booth, suggesting that Booth’s joyous dancing was not unlike his own.
Booth, who originally was hired by the group to be its dancer and backup singer, became its singer and songwriter by default. Though his smooth vocals have been compared to Bono’s, he said dancing still is his first love.
“We’ve always known that people like to watch me dance because I look a little bizarre,” he said. “But I can’t dance to all our songs (like `Say Something’) because they’re just not dance songs. Some nights, I just don’t dance and the kids are disappointed.
“But I don’t think things should be forced. Like last night we didn’t do an encore and the audiencewas a little bit upset. But they have to respect us, just like we respect them, which is why we change our set every night so fans who might come to more than one concert will always see a different show. We never expect that people will want encores from us. That’s conceited. But when they want one enough, we do them. But we don’t force it on people who’d rather go home.”
Judging by James’ strong Chicago following, there’ll be no question of whether an encore is warranted Sunday.