SetlistCome Home / Sometimes / She's A Star / Say Something / Born Of Frustration / Out To Get You / Five-O / Waltzing Along / Johnny Yen / Runaground / Tomorrow / Laid / Top Of The World / Lose Control / Sound / Sit Down
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Ian Pemberton, Q Magazine, 5/5
It’s their home city, it’s their opening night and they haven’t rehearsed…
“We’re about to be hip again.” It’s hard to quantify accurately the amount of world-weary caution in Tim Booth’s intense whisper. “It feels like we’re going to have another wave of success. It’s like, oh,” he stage-sighs, as his wiry frame slumps in mock exhaustion. “I suppose it comes in cycles.”
James, playing the first night of a small British tour that will take in Doncaster, Glasgow and Brixton, to promote Number 1 album, The Best Of, have no explanation for their sudden good fortune.
“I didn’t think it would happen to us, and I didn’t realise what that meant until it happened,” ponders Booth happily. “It’s something about Number 1 being totally indisputable. Nobody can knock it. You think, It’s only 1,2, or 3, what the fuck? But no. That is the mark.”
The last time Booth’s septet shook hands with glory was 1991, when James played to 30,000 at Alton Towers and watched Sit Down reach Number 2, while its accompanying album, Gold Mother, shifted over a million copies.
Since then, the thinking man’s baggy band have suffered steadily diminishing UK sales. Not even 1993’s Laid was able to halt the slide. Throw in three dissolute years touring in America, a tax bill that would make Bill Gate’s eyes water and 1994’s, um, experimental Wah Wah, and it’s astonishing they returned at all. Last year’s album Whiplash and the singles She’s a Star, Waltzing Along and Tomorrow marked a return to form, but they were hardly welcomed home the same way as Manchester’s prodigal sons Black Grape and Ian Brown.
As he sits in his dressing room (the rest of James are fed and watered next door), it seems Booth, who once despised celebrity has, via pressure-relieving outside interests like his starring role in Saved, an Edward Bond play showing in Bolton in April, and part-time work as a kind of shamanic dance teacher, reached and edgy accommodation with pop.
“I’m comfortable with success and fame, but I still want this band to be an art statement,” asserts the singer who, at 38, is still as earnest as a student union welfare sec. “I want the songs to be emotional and spiritual vehicles. People keep saying to me pop music’s all lowest common denominator, but I won’t accept that.”
Tonight, as they stoll onto a psychedelically-lit stage at Manchester’s Apollo, where the seats have been removed to add and extra 500 onto the venue’s 3,000 capacity, this greatist hits show is more like a chance for James faithful to reiterate their devotion.
Despite the exuberance of the mid-twenties audience, the opening Come Home sounds shaky and it’s not until the urgent, acoustic thunderstorm of Sometimes that the 18-year-old band shake off pre-gig nerves. This is the first time they’ve played live since Lollapalooza nine months ago, and rehersals for tonight have amounted to a cursory half-hour soundcheck jam. As multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies confesses later, “We were shitting ourselves.”
James three-guitar, bass and synthesiser attack may lack the dynamism of a similarly tooled-up Radiohead, and musically they couldn’t be more orthodox, but they still manage to wring cheek-tingling emotion from even the most run-of-the-mill descending chord sequence. Indeed, the crowd sings along with such ferocity that occasionally Booth’s piercing vocals are swamped.
Crisp renditions of Say Something and Born of Frustration prove how well James songs have dated, while a lovely Out To Get You owes everything to the confidence of the sprightly-looking Booth. His irony-free vocals are often moving, but can also be spikily provocative, particularly during the ancient, bitter, anti-pop-star Johnny Yen, when he spits, “They come and go/We aren’t going anywhere.”
Closing with a desperate and inspirational Tomorrow (how many pop bands would dare chorus with the acid line “All your suffering seems vain”?) followed by a pleasantly chugging Laid, they encore with Sound, incorporating a meaty, largely successful piece of Booth’s improvisation. As Manchester cheers Sit Down, the whole band linger by the stage and appear justifiably chuffed with a celebratory gig and a world that seems alive to intelligent pop songs once more.
Backstage, champagne corks are popped, Booth bubbles excitedly about today’s signing of the Northern Ireland peace treaty and a new album, which, thanks partly to their new economic clout, is due at the end of 1998.
“I really loved it tonight,” he pants. “Rock’n’roll is a vortex that can eat people up. But it’s got great energy in there too and that is still worth playing with.”