Lose Control / She’s A Star / Oh My Heart / Ring The Bells / I Know What I’m Here For / Honest Joe / Stutter / Porcupine / I Wanna Go Home / Of Monsters And Heroes And Men / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Upside / Hey Ma / Born Of Frustration / Sit Down / Sound / Out To Get You / Sometimes / Laid / Top Of The World
review by Sir Mike Nuttall CBE (fuc(c)er)
Once in a lifetime a band comes along and changes your world forever. Other bands will come and go and some will truly move you but your ‘special’ band is already cast in stone, like knowing who your football team is or your political viewpoint. James became that band for me the best part of twenty years ago. Since then, they have sound-tracked my life from the teenage angst, to the happy holidays, through the start of new relationships, in the bitterness of unhappy endings, through the pain of loss and in times of fear. Or, to put it more succinctly, in love, in fear, in hate, in tears. Then they broke my heart when splitting up in 2001 and my world had changed, seemingly for good.
The reformation in early 2007 was like a long-forgotten light going back on and illuminating a beautiful but neglected part of a room. There have been some magical shows in the interim and a joyous new album but everything seemed to be leading to this one night in a rough borough of South London. Not that I know this as the acoustic guitar of Larry Gott crashes through the opening bars of Lose Control. The stage remains in darkness and it quickly becomes clear, as heads turn to the rear that the playing is coming from the top of this venue’s sloping floor. Gott and singer Tim Booth weave their way through the crowd, pausing at times to create a mini-stage and get up close and personal with those least expecting it. She’s a Star follows and the celebratory nature of the evening is set. A triumphant Ring The Bells and the dancey I Know What I’m Here For keep the party in full-flow after we have been treated to Oh My Heart from this year’s Hey Ma album, complete with a falsetto sing-off between Booth and trumpeter Andy Diagram. This is not going to be a greatest hits show though, far from it.
What happens next is what james have always done best. They move left-field and it is another half a dozen songs later before another single is played. That tells about a tenth of the story. Honest Joe is an album track from their mid-nineties experimental album Wah Wah. Industrial guitars and duelling megaphones make this the most pleasurable kind of aural onslaught. Then comes Stutter, a song a quarter of a century old and only previously released on a live album and as a b-side. Lyrically, it deals with loss of control. Sonically, it is earthy and you can feel that it comes from the streets of northern England. The audience are lapping it up almost despite themselves and you start to feel that just maybe the band needs to give them something familiar to grasp onto. Not this band. Porcupine is a brand new song, so new that Booth is reading the lyrics from a printed sheet. The song pulsates and throbs and the future appears safe in their hands. Then comes a four-song Hey Ma onslaught, broken up only by Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), the sole single from 2001’s Pleased To Meet You album. I Wanna Go Home is a crescendo of beauty and the climax, which sees violinist Saul Davies high up on a platform, pristine all in white, is orgasmic. Of Monsters and Heroes and Men slows the pace but certainly doesn’t diminish the beauty and just when you think that your heart is full, Upside tops it to the brim. Mark Hunter’s piano entwined with the guitar of Davies truly is the sound of a heart breaking. The title track of Hey Ma is the one political song of the night and is poignant on the day that yet another British soldier has lost his life in Afghanistan. Bush and Blair, I hope you never sleep peacefully again.
Here come the big guns. Born of Frustration sees Booth venture down onto the barrier, where he is supported by the crowd and despite swaying he never misses a note. A lazy and languid intro to Sit Down follows, Hunter’s piano again to the fore and as the song kicks in, Gott, Davies and Diagram join Booth at the apron of the stage, making quite a spectacular site. The final song of the main set is Sound, a top ten single from late 1991 but a song that the band clearly still love to improvise, never playing it quite the same twice. The extended outro is extraordinary and even the band don’t seem to know when it will end, to the extent that the drummer briefly gives up before joining in again. It is almost a relief when they leave the stage, giving us old-timers a chance to catch our collective breath.
If there is a theme to the night, then it is hats, with various band members wearing a variety of headgear including a bobble hat and a beret. As the opening bars of Out To Get You threaten to reduce grown men to quivering wrecks, the drummer claims the prize for the most ridiculous hat of the evening, a big flashing Christmas monstrosity. The music is the far from monstrous though with the violin again taking centre stage. A swirling Sometimes ends in a five minute sing-along, culminating with Booth declaring that he wants to remember the moment as he dies. We can only hope that he will need a very long memory. Then Laid sends the crowd into a heaving mass of limbs and sees the stage filled with dancers picked out if the crowd. As the band take their bow, the noise in the venue is deafening and an overwhelming victory is assured. Nobody could have complained if this was the finale but the band members clearly don’t want to leave just yet. With yet another strange twist, they choose to end with Top Of The World, an album track from 1990’s breakthrough record Gold Mother. It is one of the most stunningly gorgeous songs in their repertoire and as my eyes well up, the biggest struggle is to stop the tears from flowing.
It is only after the house lights finally come up that I become fully aware of the enormity what I have just experienced. A band formed more then twenty-five years ago has just given a performance so beguiling that for the first time since their reunion, I don’t feel like they could ever break my heart again. Obviously, I hope that there are many more james live experiences in the future and the appearance of a new song bodes well. But if for whatever reason I have seen them for the final time then I am at peace, safe in the knowledge that I was there when the class of 1982 graduated to become simply different class. To Tim, Jim, Larry, Saul, Mark, Dave and Andy, sincerely, thank you.