Dream Thrum / Oh My Heart / Ring The Bells / Waterfall / Come Home / Hey Ma / Bubbles / Seven / Say Something / Don’t Wait That Long / I Wanna Go Home / Out To Get You / Upside / Whiteboy / Born Of Frustration / Sit Down / Sound / Top Of The World / Sometimes / Laid
It’s nights like this that bring home the stark fact that James have no peers in the music business today – a show so full of life and vitality and energy and twists and turns that you cannot fail to be captivated and drawn into a maelstrom. Los Angeles didn’t know what had hit it. British audiences have been treated to James for years and years and have maybe taken the quality of the shows for granted. James hadn’t been to Los Angeles to play a full-on headline show (I’m excluding Spaceland in June here) since 1994. Live, they were either a hazy wistful memory or one of those bands that just never came here.
Openers Uncle Bob were excellent and the crowd responded well to them, building a sense of anticipation for James, as the red curtain closed across the stage so that the crowd couldn’t see the preparations for the show going on behind it.
Just after 10, the lights went down and the opening bars of Dream Thrum struck up as the curtain moved back to reveal the band, Tim in a hat that was too big (by design I think) which was later almost to resemble a turban. The sound was a vast improvement on the previous night in San Francisco and the crowd immediately more responsive. It’s strange to have an album track get such a response, and particular one so fragile as Dream Thrum, but the history here is different to that of the UK crowds.
Oh My Heart is introduced as a song about breaking your heart so it can be transformed into something more beautiful, like a butterfly. None of the new material played tonight suffers in comparison to the more staple James favourites around them. It’s a mark of the high quality of the Hey Ma album that this is the case. The songs blossom further in the live arena. Waterfall stands tall next to Ring The Bells, a real highlight tonight. Andy is on top form, not just musically as his trumpet soars through most of the set including a rabid take on Come Home, but visually. He dances with Larry and, when not playing trumpet, stalks the stage tambourine in hand.
Hey Ma is introduced as a song about Bush and Blair’s actions in Iraq. There’s not much reaction until the song kicks in and the chorus builds and then the whole place seems to be singing it back. Very few people here at least seem to disagree with the sentiment of the song.
Bubbles, dedicated to Luca, is simply stunning, no other words to describe it. It builds and builds and builds and then explodes into a crescendo. Held together by Jim, Mark and Dave, it’s propelled by Saul, Larry and Andy with Tim dancing wildly and spitting out the lyrics as if he’s being exorcised. It’s magnificent stuff.
Seven gets its first airing for a while and maintains the energy of the set, before Say Something sees Tim make his foray off stage into the audience. It’s always a crowd favourite, but here in the US it’s one of the three most recognised tracks and is sung back by the whole place as Tim makes his way round the venue.
The pace drops slightly for an absolutely gorgeous version of Don’t Wait That Long. It hadn’t been done justice on the few outings in the UK last year, but there’s no such worries tonight. The backdrop turns red as Tim takes control of the song and shows off his vocal range. I Wanna Go Home is blistering. Like Bubbles it builds until the stage explodes in a sea of light and a cacophony of noise. It had been described earlier in the year as the new Johnny Yen. Musically it probably goes past that old friend.
Out To Get You has the crowd clapping and singing along in unison. The end section, including a jawdropping violin solo from Saul, again just demonstrates the uniqueness and unpredictability of this band.
Upside is marred by an incident where Jim ends up in the crowd. One of the guys next to me said something had been throwing stuff on stage for the past few songs. The song itself doesn’t quite catch fire in the way the rest of the set does, but that’s probably down to what had just happened.
Whiteboy is fast, frenetic and has the crowd back moving and leads into the chorus of recognition and Indian impersonations of Born of Frustration. The sound is huge, Andy’s trumpet piercing the air like a rallying cry to the crowd who need no encouragement.
Sit Down, freed from the chains of being “that song”, sounds fresh, vibrant and one of the most poignant and touching songs ever written. It’s group therapy, Tim holds his hand up at the “those who find themselves ridiculous” line.
Sound closes the main set and is the best version I’ve heard for a long time, if not ever. As it seems to be drawing to a close, it kicks back in even harder, held together by Jim’s bass whose beauty in its simplicity. But the real star of this song is Dave, who drives it along and dictates the pace and drive of the song. At the end, Tim stands and does a call and response to the audience on the “ma ba oooh” part. He looks visibly moved and, like the rest of us, drawn in to what has gone on and utterly captivated by it.
It feels like the applause is never going to stop as the band line up to take their bows. They’re clearly moved and taken aback by the ferocity of the response, but they deserve every little bit of it.
Finally, they come back for an encore with starts with Top Of The World, slightly spoilt by some knobs trying to sing Sometimes over the start of it. Without the distraction of Tim appearing in the crowd it’s far more eerie and the haunting bass hangs over the crowd as Tim half-sings, half-speaks the words.
The finale is madness. Sometimes starts up and the whole place erupts. There’s no need for any encouragement for anyone to start singing the chorus back at the band at the end, them taking over before the song is even taken down. It’s probably the loudest and most sustained I’ve heard it too, Tim dances along as the crowd get louder and louder until Larry breaks in with Laid and then all hell breaks loose. Tim invites a couple of people on stage and then everyone goes for it. The stage is so crowded that Tim jumps down to sing the end and to dance in the audience. As a celebration, as the end of a show, it’s one of those moments you only witness once in a very long while. I think Larry’s fond of the phrase “from chaos comes beauty”. It’s apt in this situation.
Noone really wants to leave at this point, but unfortunately that was the end. It’s a real privilege to watch something that special, that brings together so many people and includes them in what is going on up on the stage. Far from being a band that is back to milk their back catalogue, James are taking their legend and expanding on it, with a wonderful album and with a series of shows that, despite probably not being financially rewarding, are demonstrating that they have no peers in this arena and probably most importantly an exorcism of the bad vibes and disputes of the past. They looked like a band in love with itself and the music they are creating and experiencing the joy of sharing it with those around them. America has been treated.