Tim Booth’s recent decision to walk away from fronting James after 19 years should be viewed as a rare example of a rock star behaving with true dignity. Despite their 1998 Best of album selling 1m copies, the band’s last two studio albums – 1999’s Millionaires (arguably the best of their career) and this year’s Pleased To Meet You – fared inexplicably badly. When Mercury Records dropped them after a 10 year relationship, the writing was on the wall, but the number of “classic” groups that are lingering on or reuniting still throws Booth’s decision to quit into stark perspective.
Fans of many different ages are crammed into this warm-up for the final arena shows. James boast one of rock’s most loyal fan bases, and could still have made a very comfortable living as a touring band. As we line up to hear the songs for one last time, the gig has a surreal atmosphere: part funeral, part wake.
But James were never straightforward and the set list reflects their strange trajectory from oddball New Order support act to 1990s stadium giants. Curiously though, there are no songs from their early Factory Records period. Come Home blasts us back to 1990s Madchester; Say Something and Sometimes to the Eno-produced days of chart ubiquity. These songs tug at the heartstrings, and make James success seem all the more remarkable – this is a band that took mental illness on to Top of the Pops.
There was always something of the underdog about James though. They battled industy shenanigans, line-up upheavals, physical problems and personal turmoil, their determination reflected in the hopeful song Tomorrow. The crowd sing along, eyes closed. For years, James provided a precious rock to cling to for the multitudes who felt similarly distressed and alienated by the world.
Booth used to resent the way the press depicted him as a vegan and meditating Buddhist, but now, in vest and skull cap, he looks very much the part, which must afford him some wry amusement. He is subdued for the first half, but grows exuberant as the power of the songs carries him away. James close with the colossus Sit Down and then the seven-piece band walk to the front of the stage and wave goodbye, History will remember them kindly, a uniquely spirited rock band that never knew disgrace.