Sit Down / Born Of Frustration / Hymn From A Village / It’s Hot / Dr Hellier / Ten Below / Tomorrow / Hup-Springs / Johnny Yen / I Wanna Go Home / Out To Get You / Come Home / Stutter / Crazy / Ring The Bells / Sound / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Sometimes / Laid / Top Of The World
So, James make their first trip to Southend, deep in the heart of Essex, to the Cliffs Pavilion, which will play host to the likes of the Chuckle Brothers and Brendan Cole in the future. Looking around the crowd, it’s a mixed bunch of ages, not surprising given the lack of bands of James size and reputation that make it out here.
Sit Down starts with Tim on the balcony telling the crowd he was here to see how they were faring by the seaside. The whole place sings along, arms raised, necks cricked. It’s a triumph, a genius opening and has the crowd eating out the palm of their hands. This is kept up by an elongated opening to a normal Born of Frustration, shorn of the jazzier, slow-fast elements of other performances on this tour. Tim hollers the “who put brown owl eyes on a butterfly’s wings” over the end section. The Essex men and women around us are suitably impressed, at least those capable of standing are. The teenage kids are obviously a bit too cool for school and don’t join in the dancing.
Next is Hymn From A Village, and here’s where the problem starts. Whilst the crowd in the centre appear to be having a blast, round the sides it’s a different story. How dare they play a song they haven’t heard before – you have to wonder if Best Of’s east of Canary Wharf were only sold with 17 tracks.
By the time we get to It’s Hot, the first of the “new beautiful songs”, about “steamy sheets resolving differences”, a few have mooched off to the bar already. It’s shocking. James are on fire, the new songs sound streets ahead of how they did just a week ago. It’s Hot sounds so fierce without the electronica and Tim loses himself in a singing / shouting at the end that must put huge strains on his voice. It’s brilliant, but it’s lost on most of them around us.
Dr Hellier is introduced as another song to test the crowd’s musical appreciation. Larry’s guitar and Dave’s drums drive the verse through the chorus which explodes in flashes of light. Ten Below broods through the opening bars and lines up to the “that’s a fucking lie” – Andy’s trumpet kicks in and it turns a song about despair and desolation into a celebration. Tim turns the song with the megaphone “he’s at war” section, aided by some fantastic lighting flourishes. It’s difficult, as Tim admits, for the crowd to listen to new songs, particularly as the album isn’t released yet, but there’s not huge respect shown for them where we are.
Back on familiar territory, and a fast frenetic rousing version of Tomorrow grabs the attention of the chatterers. Hup-Springs works brilliantly next to it, Saul on cowbells, Andy prowling with a tambourine, Tim firing the lyrics out with Jim and Larry on backing vocals. It’s almost 1989 all over again, and there’s nothing lost in energy and the ferocity of the song despite this incarnation of the band coming of age this year.
Johnny Yen is next. It doesn’t get the massive cheer that it always gets. Seriously, the first time I’ve not been deafened by cheering as it starts up. There’s clapping, but it feels odd. As ever, it builds and then descends, or should that be ascends, into a musical improvised cacophony. Tim brings the lyrics up to date with references to Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse.
As the opening notes of I Wanna Go Home rumble around the room, it appears some people have forgotten they’re even at a gig at all, not even bothering to face the stage, squealing at each other in that most whiny of whiny Essex accents. But more and more people have realised they’re not witnessing some hits out for the lads and lasses band. What’s a relatively simple plaintive song is transformed into an absolute beast, Saul’s violin piercing the chatter, Tim again putting severe strains on his voice by aiming high and long. Out To Get You is a banker, grown men get in touch with their sensitive side, Tim climbing onto the mirrorball stage to sing looking down over the crowd.
Tim mischeviously asks the crowd who are from Southend, and when it appears most people aren’t jokingly says it’s pathetic being outnumbered in their own town. He introduces Come Home as a “sexy old one”, to which Saul says “you Tim”. It’s all over the place to be honest, held together by Mark’s keyboards, but it’s that chaos that makes it so bloody good.
Breaking from the setlist, Tim says they’re going to play a different song from the setlist they’d prepared for Southend because of “their travelling caravan of friends”. There’s some horrific noise from the back of the stage, so Tim tells the story about how Stutter is being about stood at the door of the woman he loved, having made a mess of things and feeling like a fucking idiot. If James songs were footballers, Stutter should be the first name on the sheet. Who cares it’s never been released in studio form, is nearly thirty years old and would never get played on radio – it stops people from talking and makes them watch. Andy takes over on keys, Mark joins Dave on drums and Saul has his own drumstick, Jim and Larry hammer out backing vocals and Tim loses himself as the lights go off around him. There’s an Elbow song called Switching Off about moments you want to remember just before you die. James playing Stutter is on that list.
Tim is far chattier tonight than normal. He tells the story about his liver disease and how he felt he was crazy before being diagnosed properly and how he celebrated reaching 30 without being committed. Crazy lives up to the name. Instead of crashing into the second verse, it goes off into an instrumental tangent with Tim yelling over the top. Andy’s trumpet spirals around the song too as it goes into an extended outro.
The set draws to a close with Ring The Bells and Sound. The chatterers shut up and dance and sing and punch the air. The moshpit heaves, Andy gets up on the mirrorball stage and the crowd go wild at the end. You do wonder if they were secretly listening all along.
As they come back for the encore, Tim introduces, rather interestingly, Getting Away With It as the most popular song they’ve ever done. According to Spotify it is. I’m not quite sure it is, but it gets a fantastic reception, lots of men doing the John Travolta pose, which you really have to be Tim Booth or John Travolta to pull off. It’s funny to think that with a bit of promotion of the track, James could have had a new lease of life back in 2001 rather than the meet the contractual requirement by putting the record out approach that Mercury seemed to employ.
Sometimes is a weird one. Tim gets down on the barrier and sings pretty much the whole song half bent over the first few rows, even throwing Southend on Sea into the lyrics of the song. He’s forcing a connection in a way only he can and it’s a joy to watch an artist take on a crowd and challenge them in this way. There’s no singalong at first, Tim hollers “arriba arriba” to try and get the others to go into Laid, there’s no reaction and then suddenly the crowd bring the refrain back up, the band join in and there’s a rather wonderful and quite spontaneous ending, which makes a change from some of the more orchestrated ends to the song. It works when it happens like this.
Laid has everyone going mental as it always does, pleasing even those who appear to be there for the sole purpose of hearing that song. And then they’re gone. Except that they’re not. The lights don’t come up, the roadies don’t switch the gear off, and most of the crowd don’t leave.
The band stroll back on, Tim tells a story about a customs official at Manchester Airport who asked him whether the verse and chorus of Sometimes were linked. Then they finish with a truly breathtaking version of Top Of The World. It’s an ultimate comedown from the highs of Laid and it’s James are their best, toying with the audience’s experiences of a singalong Destiny Calling, Waltzing Along or Say Something. It’s laying down a challenge to shut the fuck up and listen. Sadly not everyone respects the beauty and fragility – some pissed up bottle blonde who can hardly stand screeches her friend’s name several times and is lucky to escape a lynching. Her husbands gurns and laughs and finds it hilarious. Perhaps they should go and watch the Chuckle Brothers next time they fancy a night out.
In summary, a great gig by the band, a mix of the old, the new, the well-known, the obscure and the unexpected. The trouble with being the only gig in town is that there are expectations of hit after hit after hit. James are not that band. They could have done a Best Of set and left the place in ruins. Their power and majesty is in much more than that.