Roxy, Atlanta, Georgia – March 1, 1997
It’s James’ second gig in America after two-and-a-half years away. It’s way below the Mason-Dixon line in that magnolia-scented South whose sniffiness regarding matters pungently Mancunian saw off the otherwise rampant Oasis only last autumn. On the face of it, a sticky one could be in prospect.
However, it turns out that the “Coca-Cola” Roxy is jaunty with “James Sold Out” signs. Cometh the hour, cometh 1,800 Atlantan fans to jam the theatre to the fire limit. They babble and gabble expectantly. When the band mooch on with nervy grins and half-waves, they draw closer, raising the temperature by about 10 degrees. James, surprisingly, mean a lot to them.
A taut swing of piano and drums presages Come Home, from Gold Mother, Tim Booth goes into his crazy shaker dance and his voice begins its ascent from the conversational-“I’ve got the bends from pressure”-through snarly self-contempt-“After 30 years I’ve become my fears/I’ve become the kind of man I’ve always hated”-to rage-“The way I feel just makes me want to scream.” On the first”scream,” a groundswell of voices screams or moans or just yells “Yeah!” right back. Almost everyone is singing along with the forgiving chorus, “Come home, come home.” Two minutes in and, after all that time away, James have re-connected, not so much by a shoutable hookline as by the detail: words that hit an audience where they live.
When the song’s finally done, while Booth’s colleagues busy themselves with instrumental swaps and sundry adjustments, the singer just stands there and grins at the crowd. He didn’t know they cared.
“After a concert like that I’m blasted open,” says Booth, sweatily slumped on a dressing-room sofa. Post-show, he’s glugging mineral water and calling for champagne. A rake-thin 37, the former Manchester University drama student talks with the oddly knowing innocence of Michael Palin. He’s also adrenaline-fuelled to an altitude way above embarrassment.
“It’s like psychic sex with the audience,” the frontman ventures. “Or rather some nights-this is a corny, atrocious thing to say-but some nights it feels like love. It can be quite shocking to receive that real appreciation. Fuck it, I’m completely wallowing in it; it’s great.”
“We got that reaction to Come Home the first time we played it live, in Blackpool just after Gold Mother was released (in 1990). I wrote it right in the middle of leaving, uh, the mother of my child (Martine McDonagh, former manager of James). I remember the whole crowd singing those lines about ‘I’ve become the kind of man I always hated’ with complete joy. Fucking hell. Out of one of my bleakest hours they transformed pain into something quite beautiful.”
He whirls onward, tying in his celestial experience of the gig with his provocateur notion of a God both female and highly shaggable which his lyrics have been exploring for some years. “To me, ecstacy is as close as we get to God. I don’t mean the drug. It’s that, Waaaaah!, that feeling of being one, that unity most of us are searching for. You can find it in sex and you can find it at a concert. James concerts have intimacy, a big sound, astonishing musicians everywhere you look, weirdness, darkness, light, joy: the human experience. I don’t think all that usually gets pulled into a ninety-minute set of songs.”
Of course, ecstacy will come and go. Sometimes, from Laid, finds James launching a triple axe attack courtesy Saul Davies, curly new boy Adrian Oxaal and Depp-dishy temp and band pal Michael Karas. The trio give it their all, remarkable in their relentlessness without quite hitting the spot. Then, recent British single She’s A Star fails to stake a claim. But its Whiplash album companion, Lost A Friend, starts to froth with bliss-seeking five-man vocals sung valiantly in the teeth of the full-band soundstorms, before Sit Down reclaims that initial spirit of shouty elevation.
Although never released as a single in America, Sit Down was always bound to be an irresistible anthem to James fans anywhere. Again, the detail does it as the band (and the admirable deskperson) retain pristine clarity to convey that final perfect knowing/naff invocation: “All those who find themselves ridiculous/Sit down next to me.” One girl is moved to such devotion that she vaults up on stage then drops to her knees in obeisance-before being ushered gently back to the crowd.
The next new one, Greenpeace, promptly loses the momentum again. There’s a false start. “All right, so we don’t know it. Let’s try again,” says Booth and gets a titter for honesty. But it’s an irretrievable shambles and the quiet bits reveal even this crowd of keenies conversing loudly as if they’d forgotten the band were there.
They’re not done, though. The American hit Born Of Frustration, from Seven, pulls it round with its declamatory way, its mass “la-la-las” and barmy Indian war whoops to join in with. At that, the Atlantans actually seem ready for what might have been the alien thunder of Avalanche, one of Whiplash’s excursions into drum ‘n’ bass bedlam, sheer mass and volume fit to bury an entire ski resort. Except that the lyric implies that the “avalanche” in question is a political revolution. But this time lyrical detail is pulverised, so nobody can work the gist out and yell, “Commie!”
Later, on black coffee with beer chasers in the hotel lobby, bassist Jim Glennie and guitarist/violinist Saul Davies say they don’t want to talk about business. But they can’t stop themselves. They’re great friends and on the opposite sides of an intra-band negotiation because, legally, James actually comprises Glennie, Booth, and Gott with “new boys” (since 1989) Davies, drummer Dave Baynton-Power and keyboard player Mark Hunter, together with recent signing Oxaal, on fees and wages.
Overdue adjustment is about to take place, triggered by the serial crises James plunged into in 1994 when they went home tired out after working American tour after tour while they cranked Laid up to 600,000 sales.
Four years on from her split with Booth, McDonagh left because she’d “had enough” of band management (she remains on good terms with the singer, who is a regular visitor to their son Ben at her Brighton home). She was ably replaced by Who/Rolling Stones and current Pulp/Manic Street Preachers associate Peter Rudge.
But then Larry Gott quit the band for a quieter family life and, later that same day as it happened, their accountant told them they owed in the region of 250,000 (pounds) in previously overlooked back-tax. Furthermore, Booth was off the scene recording his album with Angelo Badalamenti.
Glennie, who’s been in James and antecedent line-ups for 18 of his 33 years, spun into a four-month tiz: “Larry leaving especially was disastrous to me. I’d been so entrenched and then suddenly I was a fucking insecure little bastard wanting everything to be OK again. Waaaaaah!” He wails like a child lost in a supermarket.
Nonetheless, they got through it. The protocol of seniority elbowed aside by the desperate need to keep the band afloat, they all pitched in-Booth only occasionally, at first, because of his other commitment-and now Glennie and Davies constantly chorus that “it made a real band of us.”
In fact, their mood appears almost light-heartedly optimistic. Luckily, Born Of Frustration’s use in an American TV ad for the Marriott hotel chain paid their tax bill. Freshly bonded, they enjoyed recording Whiplash. Then, when they played their first, small comeback gig in Britain, at Sheffield Leadmill in February, despite their long absence, they found a great warm glow of goodwill beaming back at them.
Still, Glennie remains Mancunian about the band’s prospects: “What could happen is, after devising the perfect working structure to create our best music and have a brilliant time in the process, the album sells fuck-all, we get dropped by the record company and that’s the end of it all. That would be such a fitting end for James. I’d have to laugh. Then commit suicide.”
“Winning round an audience is a joy and we’re really cocky about it,” says Booth. “Sometimes before a gig we actually say to one another, We’ll take them in the fifth. Like Naseem Hamed.”
The boxing analogy doesn’t quite hold in Atlanta because the Roxy was KOed in the first (Come Home), and again in the fifth (Sit Down), the eighth (Born Of Frustration) and the 12th (Laid). Theencores, properly clapped and stamped for in old-fashioned “we’ll-tear-the-building-down-if-you-don’t-come-back” vein, take them beyond the modern championship distance: Out To Get You (notably, no audience chatter through this well executed quiet one), Waltzing Along (Whiplash highlight featuring a new key James line, “My life’s in plaster”), Honest Joe (bold excerpt from the much-reviled Wah Wah album) and Tomorrow (frantic bashing and aspirational anthemic chorus, “You’ve gotta keep faith that your path will change/Tomorrow”).
Once more, the Atlanta Roxy goes, “Waaaaaah!” It’s not the world, but it is encouraging. Glennieand Bayton-Power, bonded old and new, high-five one another. Less concerned with transcendence, Davies coolly lights a fag. Booth is the Cheshire cat centre-stage, grinning ecstacy.