Come Home / Waltzing Along / Ring The Bells / Play Dead / If Things Were Perfect / Who Are You / Chain Mail / Out To Get You / Don't Wait That Long / Upside / Johnny Yen / English Beefcake / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Destiny Calling / Tomorrow / Sit Down / Gold Mother / Laid / Sometimes / She's A Star / Say Something
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It's getting difficult to find words to talk about most of these shows. Last night was my 102nd James show and I guess it was the first for some of the crowd given the younger faces, yet the whole place - new fan, old man, casual fan, diehard - was reduced to a heaving mass by the end by a powerful combination of a selection of hits plus a middle section of new songs, old favourites and choices from the depths of James vast, varied and glorious past. The set, in James tradition, contained something for everything, and, gauging from the audience reaction, a lot of people discovered and loved a side to James that they had maybe not heard before. James gigs have generally always been massive celebrations of great music, and more importantly great musicianship. Now, they're stoked by a fire burning deep inside the collective belly that hasn't been burning this strong for a long long time.
Within a few bars of Come Home, the Academy has surrendered. It's a bizarre venue, dancing is like trampolining with glue on your feet. It really felt that the floor could give way at any minute. Come Home is a blast. It's unfaithful enough musically from the original to give it something different, but faithful enough to send everyone wild. Waltzing Along and Ring The Bells simply maintain the pace, the sound mix is pretty perfect. Even in a mass of bodies pushing for space, it's possible to hear subtle elements coming through - Mark's keyboards and later Saul's violin pierce through the drums and guitars at times. There may be six people on stage at these shows, but you need to add two more people to this mix. The lights and sound are as integral to the show as everything else, because as James go from one tangent to another, they need to follow to hold it all together.
Play Dead does for a while stop the audience in their tracks. It's not that familiar to most of the crowd, but there's very little chatter, sauntering off to the bar. People stand and watch and when it's over, they go mad. It's game on. The next move, to continue the rather bad sporting analogy, is something out of the top draw, something you'd expect from the Ronaldinho's, Messi's, Ronaldo's of the world. If Things Were Perfect is probably older than some of the crowd, dating back possibly to the pre-Tim days, and I can't recall having heard it for twenty years (apart from the Hoxton show) and it's thrown into a baying Newcastle crowd, who treat it like an old friend. Whilst it doesn't maintain the quirky charm of an early eighties Factory band, it's imbued with something special, something that you can only call Jamesian, because I could write a thesis on what makes this band different from anyone else.
Who Are You is introduced as the new single (probably the first promotion of it I've heard so far) and there are pockets of the crowd that treat it just like any other single James have released. There are some people singing along. So it seems like it is getting across even though you can't actually go out and buy it yet.
Chain Mail had been a worry in Glasgow, a little flatter than some of the other songs. No such worries tonight, it seems to have a different arrangement, more of the crowd appear to know it and the chorus crashes in at the end and it sounds wonderful.
It takes only a few bars of Out To Get You for the venue to erupt. It's amazing that was a six minute mess (in the very nicest sense of the word) of a b-side from 1990, got resurrected for the acoustic tour, ended up opening Laid, found its way on to the Best Of and then, when thrown into the middle of a set, just totally grabs everyone in the place. Having this on the Best Of was a masterstroke, as it gives the audience an insight of a different James away from the singles, with a mastery of the quieter, slower moments that they've never been given the credit for that they deserve.
Don't Wait That Long follows and I may have lost it here because I was convinced they missed out a whole section of the song. I think, more likely, is that the combination of Larry's guitar, Jim's bass and Geoff's lighting just took me off into a world of my own. Tim asked the audience if they were handling the weird set, that they were playing it out of their respect that the audience would listen to it and weren't there just for the hits.
Upside Downside [ed. later renamed to just Upside for album release] follows, and this has developed into a song about being on the road and away from home. I'm not going to bore anyone with how great I think this is, but I did learn last night the soaring bit is actually a key change. Wish I'd known that when I failed that music exam 24 years ago.
Tim's opening to Johnny Yen is almost lost in the applause for Upside, but the crowd greet it like an old friend. As passionate, as improvised as ever, the vocal improvisation namechecks Iggy Pop amongst others. Quite rightly, this is taking its place on the new Singles collection (out on Monday on 2 cd, cd and dvd people) as it's as an integral part of the James legacy and live experience as any of the singles.
English Beefcake makes its first appearance next, the first time Larry's played it on stage and Tim introduces it as a song only played when drunk and at weddings. It's tailor-made for this incarnation of James, improvised lyrics, boundless opportunities for new musical arrangements and improvisation and was one of the highlights of the evening.
There's no sense of relief or anti-climax when the band go back to the hits. The crowd has generally been wonderful throughout a difficult middle section of a set that many would have expected to have been laden with hits. They stopped dancing, they listened, they took in and they applauded. Proof that James are not just one of the most intelligent bands around, that can be applied to their audiences as well. A "that was fucking brilliant" greeted the end of English Beefcake, to which Tim responded "fucking thank you".
Getting Away With It sees Tim make a mess of the words, but passes it off as improvisation. Destiny Calling takes us back to the trampoline floor of the early stages of the show. Tomorrow just turns the whole thing up another step. It's fifteen years old, but it's still fresher, more impassioned than anything anybody has put out in the interim. It builds and then soars, and to think, it could have just been tossed away at the back end of Wah Wah had it not been for someone insisting that it made the final mixes for Whiplash as it had been conspicuous by its absence on early promos.
The opening bars of Sit Down come from Mark's keyboard, teasing the audience before crashing into the song. The crowd go wild. The band, in their wisdom, refuse to let the song overshadow the rest of the set. Tim sings the whole thing, there's no empty gestures of offering the mic to the crowd or such nonsense. Everyone in the place appears to be bellowing out every word as if their lives depended on it. I think I still have the lump in my throat.
Gold Mother has now been played every night, and has been very different each time. As a non-musician, it's totally perplexing to me how it holds itself together, but it does. The music itself is almost like contractions, I found myself mouthing (because I don't sing out loud, it would be BAD), bend, hold, push, kick over the end section. Laid and Sometimes are wild, a band having rediscovered its rather substantial power and a crowd witnessing a rebirth they never thought they'd see.
They leave, but come back from the new stripped down version of She's A Star. It seems less fragile than it had done before, the crowd stand there gobsmacked at the sheer nerve of the band to do one of their biggest hits this way at the end of a gig and then join in. It's telling to note you can hear the "do you get it?" part before the final chorus that Tim no longer sings live from the crowd. To finish, Say Something explodes into new life, an extended ending, some lyrical improvisation from Tim, Larry adding backing vocals, and then it's over. The crowd stand, shout, whistle, holler. Another substantial away win for James.
If you're not going to any of the remaining shows, beg, steal or borrow to get to them. This is something really really special. Always on the edge, on the brink, utterly compelling.