SetlistBorn Of Frustration / Tomorrow / Sit Down / Chain Mail / Play Dead / Out To Get You / Bubbles / Not So Strong / Hey Ma / Say Something / Laid / Gold Mother / Ring The Bells / Sometimes / Upside / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / She's A Star
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Back in 1998, James took a very young Sophie Ellis-Bextor on tour with her band The Audience. Their standout song (Running Out Of Space) started off with the line “I never thought you’d ever let me down. You’re not the sort, but you’ve got the right to astound.” It’s a line that for me could have been written about James. Last night was one of those nights where James just took off and defied all my expectations, took me out of the physical exhaustion of standing in a scorching room after a day on my feet walking round the hills of Edinburgh, the expectations associated with previous experience of Scottish crowds and the rather dreadful surroundings of the soulless Corn Exchange and the awful sound that had not done the otherwise excellent My Federation support slot any justice at all. I don’t think I stopped dancing the whole set (I am using dancing in the loosest sense of the word here). If this wasn’t the best James gig I’ve seen, it was definitely Top 3.
Coming on stage about ten minutes late, Tim appeared in a skirt (it may have been a kilt, I wasn’t really close enough to tell before I get bombarded by irate Scots calling me a clueless Englishman) and a rather fetching t-shirt with a pair of breasts printed on the front. Quite what the message was, I’m not sure. However, Born of Frustration started with the Larry intro that makes the single version of this song the one you really have to hear (the album and Best Of versions are shorter and miss this out). Immediately the crowd go wild. But not in the way they did in Glasgow, this is a celebratory unison, very little of the testosterone fuelled aggression that plagued the Glasgow gigs in April, but based on the joy music can bring to a room full of people. Andy’s trumpet has added so much to the mix, a very vital element of the live 2007 James sound, bringing back the unscripted more random elements into the mix that made the 1992 live incarnation of the band my favourite period to date. Tomorrow doesn’t let the pace off at all. Fast and frenetic, Tim and Saul are almost nose to nose singing the opening lines and the band take over, driving faster and faster to the climax, the crowd is now a heaving mass of arms and celebratory singalong. Two songs in, I’m hooked and looking around, I think every single person in the room is too.
Next comes the song to furl all the James debates. For me, and this comes after years of maybe sitting the other side of the fence, Sit Down has to be played. It is the song that everyone knows and when you take away the excessive radio play and the “I know that song ‘oh sit down'” debates of the past fifteen years, and in this environment standing in a room full of 2,000 people when they realise what Larry’s 1-2-3-4 is leading into is, for me who isn’t really into that thing, an almost revelatory experience. Stripping it to base facts, it’s a fucking amazing amazing song and without it, we wouldn’t be watching James here today. In true awkward fashion, you suspect it’s played at a slightly different pace and the opportunity to develop it into a singalong is denied. But it just makes it all the more powerful by doing so.
Chain Mail starts up. And it’s clear that many don’t know it. But what they do is carry on dancing or they stand and listen. They don’t start chattering or shouting loudly. They listen. The song grows menacingly as Tim and Andy prowl the stage, building to the final chorus which crashes in as the room explodes into a blaze of light. Play Dead follows and again the crowd react the same and by the end I think most people are dancing or standing open-mouthed and staring at what they’re witnessing.
Out To Get You induces the traditional waving of arms and communal singing and grows to a wild improvised ending with Tim stage left, dancing wildly encouraging Jim and Saul onwards as they stand face to face pushing each other further and further.
Tim introduces the first of two new songs getting their first play Bubbles with the sad news that Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records, long-time supporter of James and Manchester legend, had passed away earlier in the evening. I’m sure there will be hundreds of epitaths for this great man, but dedicating a brand new song to him was somehow appropriate. Tony supported James throughout their career even though they walked away from Factory very early in their careers and he and James shared a rather unique and successful approach to what they do. It was self-evident there was a lot of love between the band and the man.
The song itself is clearly works in progress. The beginning gives this away, but it grows rather splendidly by the mid section and the chorus has grabbed me by the end of the song. It takes a lot of balls with what’s gone before to risk totally killing the atmosphere that has been built up with a run of new songs, but the crowd appear to love it.
The more familiar, but still brand new to most, Not So Strong follows. Again, works in progress, but far more roundly formed already than its predecessor. It’s a great, great song, but is still changing and evolving. Tim has written some new verses since the last UK performance at Oran Mor, and to be honest, they take a bit of getting used to especially as, in my opinion, the old ones were perfectly fine as they were. But part of this set of shows is to roadtest these songs before going into the studio next month.
The third of the medley of new songs is introduced as being about September 11 and its consequences and it’s another first play. The title doesn’t get revealed so we’ll call it Hey Ma as the main chorus line appears to be “Hey Ma, your son’s coming home in a bodybag.” This one appears further progressed than Bubbles and it gets the best crowd reaction of the three new songs. Now we’ve heard what it is probably the basis of half of next year’s album and it’s looking very good so far.
Conscious of the fact they might have killed the atmosphere that had built up (they hadn’t although Tim asking if people wanted another new one before Hey Mom and admitting he sympathised with the “no” answers meant they thought this could have happened) they launched into Say Something. Whether Tim coming down and standing on the barrier wearing a kilt was a wise idea, I’m not sure, but he took to banging people on the head with his microphone who tried to find the answer to the age-old question. The crowd were back into heaving mass mode and from looking at those around me, the joy on the faces and the dancing told you everything about the power and passion that was being generated on stage.
Even Laid, which for me has been the one song that I’d come to the conclusion I wouldn’t miss if they didn’t play it again, is absolutely mental. Total strangers are hollering the song to each other around me and all the way back to the sounddesk is a mass of bodies and arms.
For Gold Mother, Tim and Saul select audience members to join them on stage and dance with them. The song itself is wild. It veers wildly as it moves from section to section, the lights adding more and more to the impact as the song grows and builds with Tim stage right, megaphone inches from Larry’s face, pushing and encouraging him on. The rest of the crowd keep the dancing going or stand in awe at what they’re witnessing.
Ring The Bells and Sometimes bring the set to a close. The extended ending of Ring The Bells with Andy chanting “shoot the fucker” as Tim loses himself in dance and the band ratch the noise up louder and faster. At the end the crowd go mental as the band stand and stare and applaud. It’s been some experience so far, a demonstration of the power of music in the live environment and a band that has hopefully cast off the internal fighting that blighted a lot of the last ten years of their first coming (or second or third or fourth or fifth depending on how you view their history). No other band I have ever seen can live with James when they are on this kind of form.
The encore starts with the song that could hopefully relaunch James into the public consciousness. An unashamed over the top love song about being separated from a loved one, Upside Downside [ed. later renamed to just Upside for album release] has almost everything you could want in a song. It’s brimming with emotion and passion from the lyrics and also the music which matches what is being expressed in the words. I don’t think I can express how great this song is in mere words, so I’ll move on.
Getting Away With It belies its in at 22 and gone the next week status and is sung back with as much enthusiasm by the crowd as anything that has gone before it. Tim strikes and holds the John Travolta pose as the lights flash around him.
The set closes with She’s A Star. I was sceptical of the new arrangement on first hearing, but it’s been beefed up and works perfectly. Larry’s guitar pervades throughout the song and carries the fragility of the new version. The crowd, as they have most of the night, sing along word perfect. And then they’re gone.
It’s now ten the next morning. After a wander round Asda, an hour’s drive to Perth, some southern comfort and cherry coke (not my idea and it doesn’t really work) and a few hours sleep, I’m still buzzing from the adrenalin of the gig. It’s a massive contrast to the feeling at eight last night when I volunteered I might have been happier in a field a hundred and fifty miles north chilling out watching The Magic Numbers than in a hot sweaty room with awful sound and feet throbbing from all the walking I’d done. But that’s what James can do. They very rarely, if ever, let you down, but every so often, they produce a gig that blows away anything you’ve seen for a while. Last night was one of those nights. I can only hope tonight isn’t one big comedown.