Sit Down / Hang On / Hymn From A Village / It’s Hot / Dr Hellier / Seven / Shine / Ten Below / Walking The Ghost / Lullaby / Stutter / Destiny Calling / Crazy / Hup-Springs / Johnny Yen / Tomorrow / Sound / Say Something / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Sometimes / Laid
The opening night of the Mirrorball tour, and without the benefit of a warm-up show to acquaint ourselves with the new songs from The Night Before in the live environment, there’s finally a sense of excitement once the long wait in the boiling hot Corn Exchange gets punctuated by Larry’s acoustic guitar. The lights go up at the back of the arena as the familiar opening strains to Sit Down start up, but it’s just Larry, Saul and Tim bathed in white light, starting the song on the raised wheelchair ramp area. Facing a boozed-up Bank Holiday crowd, it’s a genius start. The biggest hit, the best known song, but in a new way. After the first verse they make the journey down to the stage through the adoring crowd.
What happens next is unexpected. There’s been some curveballs to the past thrown in since the reformation, but resurrecting Hang On, a track ditched from the re-release of Gold Mother, to accommodate Sit Down, is one of the widest to date. Truth is of course is that most bands would kill for a song this good. Next is the strident, twenty-five plus year old Hymn From A Village, still as fresh and fraught as ever. As with the Hey Ma tours, leg one is clearly about James present with unexpected elements of the past. It’s great.
Two new songs follow. It’s Hot is stripped of a lot of the electronic background and as a result the start is a bit muted, but the guitars kick in and rescue the song, which focuses around Tim’s vocals as it reaches its climax. A different take on a new classic. Dr Hellier is a much straighter take on the album version, but doesn’t suffer as a consequence. What’s clear now is how much the band are focused and into this show, the excitement and the adrenalin of the new and not so familiar old is what has driven the reformation, and this setlist has both in spades. Seven is a case in point. Pretty much completely discarded in 1992 after the acoustic tours, it flits back in and out of the setlist (remember it opened the first Hoxton just over three years ago) but never fails to stand out, particularly as it gives Andy chance to roam the stage and puncture the air with the song’s trumpet calling card.
Shine is the best of the new songs tonight. It’s rocked up from the record and the climatic “when you’re gone, your songs outlive your story” build like all the great James live “classics”. Ten Below sees Andy on the “Bubbles drum pad” – what’s clear tonight is the joy the band are getting out of the new songs as well as those they haven’t played for decades.
A black cloth near the drums is removed to reveal a huge mirrorball with a glass platform over the top of it, which Tim climbs onto as the first bars of Walking The Ghost pierce the red-hot atmosphere in the venue. The mirrorball sparkles as Tim stands bolt-upright against a black and silver backdrop and orange lighting, almost touching the roof. Sensing there might be some unrest in parts of the crowd, Tim asks if it’s the Edinburgh crowd that’s come to listen to sophisticated songs or the Greatest Hits crowd. The roar says the latter, but to be fair, the crowd had responded wonderfully to the more obscure elements of the set. Tim promises the next song will be the last that might stretch them. Lullaby is as jaw-droppingly beautiful and aching as Walking The Ghost before it.
Tim comes down from the platform and tells the crowd he lied and that they’re going to play a really old song. Stutter just can’t be described adequately. It’s the best part of thirty years old, it’s never been released in studio form, and it’s one of the most tumultuous, ecstatic, absolutely bonkers live tracks. Saul goes from drums to banging Larry’s guitar with his sticks, Tim loses himself in the cacophony of noise the band creates and the lighting, whilst simple, just adds to the madness on stage.
Having indulged themselves and those of us who would die happy with this set, they throw in Destiny Calling, to the groans of the man stood next to me. His point that this was throwaway pop compared to what has gone before is possibly a valid one, but of that genre, it’s one of the best. The Edinburgh pogo society votes with their feet and arms and the temperature in the venue goes up many degrees.
Tim introduces Crazy as the new single and tells the crowd that they need to make it a hit. Mark’s electronics get slightly lost in the mix, but it sits proud and tall along most of the rest of James’ singles catalogue, despite Tim acknowledging to the front row at one point that he hasn’t quite nailed down all the words yet. But it’s James, that’s how they are. Get over it.
The biggest surprise of the evening is the inclusion of early b-side Hup-Springs. It is almost staccato, Tim almost chanting his way through the song as the band keep up the frenetic pace. Twenty years ago, performances like this made the “business” sit up and recognise James as the finest live band in the country. This, if anything, was more fierce and invigorating than that.
Having started with a bang, the run-in to the end of the set and the encore is a mini-Greatest Hits run-through, which leaves the crowd going out of the doors, happy, begging for more, and maybe forgetting that they might yet not be that keen on the songs in the middle that they haven’t had the chance to listen to and learn to love.
Johnny Yen is greeted as if it’s a number one single and has benefited from being put on the shelf for a while. Tomorrow reduces the front of the crowd to a heaving mass before the opening bars of Sound signal the end of the main set. Andy takes his place on the platform to blast out his trumpet, Saul, Jim and Larry converge and Tim loses himself completely in the music. There’s no extended outro tonight, which has a sense of relief as it is taken for granted by many that this is how it goes with the song and it’s good to see that they’re not afraid not to do it. The reception at the end is immense.
The encore starts with Say Something. Tim comes down to the barrier in a couple of places and stands on there only held up by fans and security as he balances and sings the song. It’s the one point of the night that feels like James-by-numbers. Other hits over time get new treatments but Say Something hasn’t. Not that most people actually care as they sing along to every word and jump and wave.
Getting Away With It has the crowd singing along before Tim even opens his mouth. It’s become an anthem as much as anything else in the set and there’s the first crowd-surfer of the night carried out.
Sometimes is introduced as the last song, and the end induces a singalong of the chorus at which point the band stop playing and just stand and watch and listen, Larry taking pictures. It’s inevitable now that this crowd isn’t going to go anywhere until they hear Laid, and it’s the long drawn-out trumpet-laden version that has the crowd from front to back of the venue going absolutely wild. It might have been an easy ending to throw in, but you cannot deny the power that it has, something that most of the big bands of today wish they could bottle and use because they can’t compete with this bunch of old-timers when they’re on this type of form.
So very little in terms of opening night nerves, some very pleasant surprises in the setlist, most of the new record (Porcupine surprisingly absent and Hero maybe needing more practice) and a set-list dreamed up by some form of genius that gives something for everyone – the die-hards get the old songs plucked from the back catalogue, the more casual fans get the fantastic opening, the hits laden ending and an opportunity to discover there’s more to James. And the band? Well they look they had an absolute whale of a time. Tim never seemed to stop beaming between songs, the looks on the faces of the seven at the end blown away by the response coming back from the crowd.
Rock n razzle.