Born Of Frustration / Oh My Heart / Boom Boom / Ring The Bells / Hey Ma / 72 / Bubbles / Come Home / Of Monsters And Heroes And Men / I Wanna Go Home / Whiteboy / Upside / She’s A Star / Tomorrow / Sound / Say Something / Johnny Yen / Waterfall / Sometimes
Before launching into Upside, Tim comments on the awkwardness of having so many new songs in the set for those that haven’t got Hey Ma and just want to hear their favourites, but that the songs will sound fantastic. They already do. Not one of the new songs played tonight seemed out of place or ill-fitting. James have a long history, and the press releases suggest the December tour will doff Larry’s fetching beret to that past, but this tour is about the present of James. The choice of older songs and the sheer momentum and that continuing desire to improvise and take songs to new places, particularly on Sound and Sometimes, hopefully carries the vote in James favour for those who don’t know the new stuff.
Born of Frustration is such a great set-opener, those opening bars and the holler just set the scene for the crowd to get involved from the start. Oh My Heart and Boom Boom feel like old friends rather than new acquaintances and are not out of place between Frustration and fourth song Ring The Bells. Hey Ma is met with cheers of approval and Tim tries to play down slightly the protest song element of it, but it still sounds bizarre to hear the audience clapping along to a song about people being flown home in bodybags, even though the contrast is something quintessentially James. 72 is funky live, it’s the one song more than the others that takes on a new lease live and it’s much more effective with the combined backing vocals making the chorus stronger than on the album.
Bubbles is gorgeous, possibly the highlight of the set for me. The second half of the song just explodes into life, Tim manages to overcome his injury to dance before beating the final bars of the song on the e-drum. Whereas PS was gorgeous on Tuesday, Come Home made more sense in the context of the gig as it kept the waverers interested. It was ragged, loose and at times messy, but the best versions of it always are.
Of Monsters and Heroes and Men is great, but there’s a sense that Tim could do so much more with it than hold the mirrorball that’s being used to make him look like a storyteller. At Hoxton, he almost acted out parts of the song and that looked to have promise, but it’s a minor point, the song itself with its build to a crescendo at the end was breathtaking. I Wanna Go Home is developing into a showstopper, there’s something a little extra being added every night as the band explore new musical opportunities with it. Once it all falls in place, people will just stop, shut up and stare. It’s pretty damn good already though.
Whiteboy is fun. It’s been accused in some quarters of being a little throwaway, but live it’s a riot. The band enjoy swinging the ropes with the lights attached to them. Tim sings it as Morrissey sings Smiths songs, jumbling the lyrics around in a way that should be irritating, but isn’t. Upside sounds like Upside always has. Wonderful.
She’s A Star works better for me in the old arrangement than last year’s revision, because you get to hear Larry’s slide guitar to full effect and it has the balcony seats up on their feet, as does Tomorrow which is as adrenalin fuelled as I’ve ever heard it. Saul plays most of the end of the set with his eyes closed, but you can see the concentration etched on his face.
Sound, circa 2001, had started to lose the stunning improvisation that has characterised its life at the end of James sets. Last night’s version brought it all back, Larry taking the lead with Saul as the song went down and came back in again. Tim added some improvised lyrics that almost sounded like the seeds for a new song. Buoyed on by this, Tim urges the band to stay on and play Say Something and jumps down to stand on the barrier to sing it.
After the customary encore ritual, Johnny Yen is greeted with an ecstatic response. Like Come Home, it’s best when it’s loose and when it could break down at any point, and tonight it doesn’t fail to deliver. Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty get namechecked in the middle section. Waterfall is a single in the old James tradition. It’s totally at home at the end of the set amongst such back catalogue heavyweights. The crowd love it.
Sometimes just brings tears to the eyes, it’s such an emotive song, but as it comes to a close with Larry and Andy singing the refrain, the crowd take over, the band stop playing and listen to the clapping and singing back for several minutes. Everything that makes James and their music such powerful communicators is captured within those few minutes.
Better than Bradford? Oh my God, yes. This feels like the Spring of 1992 all over again. Let’s hope the momentum can be maintained, because last night was one very special show.