Headline slot with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Joe Duddell as part of the Versus Cancer annual charity show at Manchester Arena. They were joined by Peter Hook of Joy Division / New Order fame for Transmission and Atmosphere as well as Rowetta from Happy Mondays for the latter.
Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Waltzing Along / Fairground / Just Like Fred Astaire / Of Monsters And Heroes And Men / Say Something / Don’t Wait That Long / She’s A Star / Hymn From A Village / Laid / Transmission / Atmosphere
A few bands have recently done gigs with orchestras, most notably Elbow with the Halle, but they’ve hand-picked special venues to do them in – ones with the acoustics and the sound systems that are designed for that music and seated so that the inclination to dance around and talk during the songs is quelled by the disdain from those around and possible ejection from the venue. Tonight was a bit different – a pissed up Mancunian crowd looking for a pre-Christmas night out, a bunch of local heroes playing their first hometown gig for 12 months in what is sort of the tradition of the homecoming December show and a sound system that is muddy to say the least, particularly for the first half of the set until someone decided to turn up the volume of the orchestra.
Following a mixed bag of other bands, a polished professional set by Snow Patrol who have sold the venue out on their own, a mystifying Happy Mondays setlist and then fifteen to twenty minute slots by local stalwarts such as Puressence and new kids on the block Kid British, James take to the stage shortly before 11. I say James, but tonight it’s just Tim, Jim and Larry, with Dave joining later to beef up the end of the set.
The blurb for the gig promised bands banging out their hits. James, ever the awkward sods they are, don’t quite follow that script. There’s no Sit Down, no big Sometimes with the singalong ending tonight, but a short journey back through the career of a band that’s been making music for over 25 years now and a few very pleasant surprises along the way.
They start on familiar ground – Getting Away With It and Waltzing Along – the crowd sing along to every word and it feels strange. The wall of sound you get with the full seven-piece James isn’t there and the orchestra don’t quite fill the gap at this point. It’s not them, you can see most of them are playing, you just can’t really hear them and the subtlety and beauty of what the Philharmonic does. Tim breaks “the formalities of the evening” by going down onto the barrier for Waltzing Along. Tim introduces the next song as an old English folk song that they haven’t played for 15 years, which Larry adds was written at the Boardwalk. It doesn’t mean much to most of the people around who probably were too young to remember the wonderful little club at the bottom end of Deansgate that doubled as a rehearsal room for many of Manchester’s great bands of the 80s and 90s. Fairground is simply beautiful though, testimony to the fact that the spirit of old old James is alive again in the reformation years. Fortunately the sound does get better for Just Like Fred Astaire and you can start to hear the strings and the rather wonderful female singer.
Back to the present, Of Monsters and Heroes and Men follows from last year’s Hey Ma and ironically, given the title of next year’s tour, there’s no Mirrorball. Loosely based on the book “The Road”, it builds to its climax as the orchestra start to win the battle with the sound in the venue.
Say Something follows and gets the predictably massive response from the crowd. But it’s now that things start to get really special. Don’t Wait That Long is absolutely beautiful, the orchestra get turned up, Dave joins the band on drums and the backing vocalist adds so much to the song.
Star starts with a beautiful violin piece (I think it’s violin at least) before the song kicks in. It’s followed by the highlight of the James set. Hymn From A Village starts with an almost tribal beat before crashing into the main part of the song. The orchestra show their true ability in keeping up with the pace of the song. Tim dances in front of them as the song reaches an almost breathless climax.and the crowd go wild again as the main set draws to a close with Laid. The crowd don’t just drown out the orchestra, they pretty much drown out Tim.
Tradition at these gigs dictates there are some collaborations at the end. Peter Hook joins James on stage and Tim introduces him and declares the influence Joy Division had on very early James. They then perform a stunning version of Transmission, before ex Happy Mondays vocalist Rowetta joins for another Joy Division track Atmosphere to finish off the set.
So overall view? Firstly, it’s a fantastic cause, Christie’s is woven into the fabric of Manchester as much as the two football team. Cancer affects everyone in some way in their lifetime and if nights like this can promote awareness and raise funds it’s a wonderful cause. Andy Rourke has done a magnificent job in putting these shows on for four years and getting these acts to play for free.
This was a massive risk for James, taking on a standing pissed-up audience on a Saturday night with an orchestra in a big shed above a railway station with an appalling sound set up. They did it with a setlist that is as awkward and unexpected as them at their very best. Perfect would be to pick this up and put in the Bridgewater Hall or the Lowry, where the acoustics would bring out the majesty of the Philharmonic and the seats cut down the chatter and shouting (I mean “come on Tim” – firstly he won’t hear you and secondly what are you asking him to do exactly?) – but they won through in the end. A unique night.