Lose Control (acoustic) / Dream Thrum / Oh My Heart / Ring The Bells / I Know What I’m Here For / Hey Ma / Bubbles / Someone’s Got It In For Me / Say Something / Porcupine / I Wanna Go Home / Of Monsters And Heroes And Men / Upside / Stutter / Born Of Frustration / Sit Down / Sound / Sometimes / Laid
Opening night of the tour and the Dome isn’t quite full as this show was announced a lot later than the other shows, but still a respectable turnout in a frankly superb concert arena. Downstairs, you have the choice of sitting or standing and the shape of the building lends itself to you not being too far away from the action wherever you sit or stand. The introduction starts with fans filmed earlier in the foyer describing the best moment of their lives. Mine appeared to be the only one edited out, but we’re treated to someone recalling when Neil Redfearn (aka Suggs not Morrissey) scored a penalty to put Oldham Athletic into the top flight and stories of childbirth and surfing waves in Australia. In comparison, mine was a bit shit, so probably just as well.
As the lights go down, you hear the opening guitar of the gorgeous acoustic version of Lose Control, but the stage is empty and then a light appears at the back of the arena. Tim and Larry make their way through the crowd, not dropping a note, despite the attention of the fans around them, shocked and surprised at getting this close to their heroes early on in the set. They weave their way through to the front where they are joined on stage by the rest of the band, who then go into the opening notes of Dream Thrum. It’s languid and laidback and sets the tone for the evening perfectly. The backdrop is bathed in purple with ripples of waves which compliments the song perfectly. The sound is crystal clear and there don’t appear to be the technical problems that beset the show on Sunday in Camden.
Oh My Heart comes next and makes clear that James aren’t going to neglect Hey Ma in favour of the hits. And there’s absolutely no reason why they should. It’s a fucking great record, on a par with anything they’ve done and the songs we get tonight, and the sadly absent Waterfall and Whiteboy, deserve to be listened to and loved in the same way as the more familiar tracks from the back catalogue.
Ring The Bells, still with it’s pseudo What’s The World intro (please just do that one night instead), gets the crowd going a bit more, but it’s a very subdued atmosphere throughout most of the show. Given the show wasn’t sold out, we took a position towards the side so we could have a dance and were amazed at the number of people stood arms folded not moving an inch other than to applaud between songs, even when the more familiar tracks were being played.
Tim introduced I Know What I’m Here For as a song that was played during the football in the UK and it’s accompanied by shots of fans “dancing” in the foyer before the show projected onto the screen at the back of the stage. It’s a little cheesy, but then again the song is one of James’ poppiest moments so it works quite well. Tim doesn’t dance in the manner we’ve become accustomed to, the jetlag from the trip from the US appears to still be troubling him.
Hey Ma is wonderful, the song grows more every time it’s played, it builds until the chorus crashes in and there’s pockets of arms raised around the venue as people join in with the chorus. The lighting backdrop, as through most of the show, is simple, but quite stunning in its effect and how it adds to the songs being played.
The highlight of the set is Bubbles. Lee talks in the itunes commentary about it being a smorgasbord of James, and he just about hit the nail on the head. It starts slowly and steadily gets faster and then explodes as Tim starts to dance whilst belting out the words. The song’s about the birth of his second child and the euphoria just pours out of the music and the lyrics.
Someone’s Got It In For Me keeps the pace quite subdued, but James’ power and beauty isn’t just in the full on nature and the cacophonies of sound of some of the hits that follow. The mastery of the more subtle moments, of which this is a prime example, sometimes gets lost by the sheer weight of numbers and quality of the hits, but it shouldn’t. Even accounting for the massive gap left by Kulas not being around to provide the backing vocals, it sets the hairs on the back of the neck up on edge.
For Say Something, Tim takes matters in his own hands and starts a tour round the stalls on the edge of the wall between the seated and standing areas of the downstairs stalls. I’ve got to admit this is the one of the “hits” I’d be happy to see disappear from the set to keep it fresh for a while, but you can’t play down the look on the faces of the crowd, startled as Tim dances in the way only he can on a five feet ledge in front of them. Two ladies are drawn to touch Tum’s toes and then run off like excited schoolgirls.
Next up is a new song, Porcupine, which was debuted in Camden on Sunday. On second listen, and without Tim’s vocals being drowned out by the failings of the system, it makes much more sense. It’s one of those yearning songs, as I think Brian Eno described Waltzing Along, that James do so well. Despite the rather odd titlle,the chorus talks about surrendering control. It bodes extremely well for 2009 that new songs are being thrown out into what is basically a celebration tour.
The expected onslaught of hits to end the set doesn’t happen just yet. I Wanna Go Home and Of Monsters and Heroes and Men provide more compelling evidence that playing more than half of Hey Ma in no way detracts from the live James experience. Give me I Wanna Go Home over Johnny Yen any day and surprise me with the latter from time to time. It twists and turns and spits at you. Monsters sees a mirror ball drop down from the roof and hang over Tim’s head as the lights bounce off, adding to the effect of the song.
Let’s be honest about the next song. Upside should have been a single. The fucked up nature of the record industry now means singles are for novelty acts, X Factor shit, the megabands that regularly strut the arenas and up and coming bands trying to get someone to give them an album deal. In a parallel universe with proper singles and b-sides, Upside is a number one single. As the songs drops and then rises back up into the extended instrumental ending, that parallel universe is in Brighton. It’s simply wonderful.
And so is Stutter. The slight disappointment with the reunion so far, is the exclusion of too much from the Stutter and Strip-Mine tracks. Stutter never made either, despite being the title for one and appearing on the unmixed unreleased original version of the latter. Live, even back as far as the Hacienda footage from 1983, it’s a killer track and it doesn’t disappoint tonight, from Larry’s almost staccato intro through the stunning lighting as it builds to a climax. Magical.
Born Of Frustration then starts a trio of big hit singles to close to set. The crowd suddenly come to life except for standing still arms folded man who decided it was a good idea to plant himself and his missus in the middle of a group of people dancing. Well done mate. Not wanting to denigrate his replacement, but Larry makes these songs his own. It seems like the band have no idea how to start Sit Down, Dave has a go and then everyone stops to allow Mark to play the spine-tingling piano-effect driven intro. I don’t care what anyone says about it being overplayed, it’s a brilliant song and there’s no shame in having something that can unite a crowd in a way that, being realistic about it, no other James song, however great they are, can quite manage. Get over it and sing along.
Sound, as ever, is a vehicle to show off the brilliance of the musicians in the band. It never sounds the same two nights running and it never fails to provide something new, starting endless debates about the best version of it ever and last night was no different. Again, the lighting adds to the overall effect without stealing the show. And then they’re gone.
Coming back for an encore that is sadly shorn of Lullaby because of curfew restrictions, it starts with Sometimes. The crowd does take quite a lot of encouragement to start singing the chorus back at the end, almost on the point of it being forced and unnatural. If the crowd don’t take on the call when Larry starts singing, it’d be nice to drop straight into Laid and use the three or four minutes of crowd singing to give us another song. I guess this depends on the crowd, when it’s natural it’s breathtaking, witness Edinburgh last year, but sometimes it just doesn’t quite happen, and last night was one of those nights.
Laid sends the crowd home happy and induces a moshpit for the first time in the evening. I blow hot and cold with this being in the set. I’m erring on the hot side at the moment when it’s at the end of a set with so much of the other side of James on show as tonight had demonstrated.
Writing this on the way up to Manchester, I’ve read some of the comments about the set being light on hits. Nine singles out of nineteen songs isn’t a huge ratio admittedly, but James are not a turn up and get your hits out band and never really have been. I don’t think it’s too much to expect for someone to have listened to the latest album of a band you’ve just paid the best part of forty quid to go and see or for the band to want to play songs from a record that stands, in their (and my) view, alongside the best of their work. A nod to some of the less well-known aspects of their back catalogue is not unreasonable either. When you go and see James, you don’t get the same set with the same between song banter, the same twists and turns in songs. James are much more than that, you’ll get songs you’ve not heard for years, the odd curveball as well as the hits you know and love. That’s why they’re unique. If you a band to play you hit after hit after hit with no passion or emotion, James are not the band for you. If you’re dithering on whether to go and see them this tour, do it or regret it.
Great gig and they’re building. This tour is going to be something special.