Dust Motes / PS / Born Of Frustration / It’s Hot / Tell Her I Said So / Runaground / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Just Like Fred Astaire / Lost A Friend / Sit Down / Don’t Wait That Long / Rabbit Hole / Jam J / God Only Knows / Johnny Yen / Ring The Bells / Sound / Stutter / Out To Get You / Sometimes / Laid
VIP Soundcheck : Lost A Friend / Runaground / Just Like Fred Astaire / God Only Knows / What For
Apologies for the brevity of this review, but this is down to the nature of the wonderful new O2 Academy in Birmingham, clearly designed by someone who’d never been to a gig before – twice as wide as it is deep and with a balcony that overhung more than half of the floor space, giving restricted views to most of the stalls, exacerbated by the fact that although the gig was a couple of hundred short of capacity, there was no way you were getting a decent vantage point without barging in if you got into the venue twenty minutes after doors. Add to that the crush and gridlock around the back bar and the area around the gents and the merchandise desk and you’d be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t supposed to be a brand new redesigned building.
It’s against the odds that James triumph in this place. I can’t comment on the lights or much about what Jim, Saul or Dave did, because it was pretty impossible to see them. The sound, despite the bass issues with the low ceiling under the balcony was excellent though – the sound engineer had worked wonders between the soundcheck and the gig to get the set sounding as powerful and clear as it did.
The set itself threw in more curveballs from the London dates. Still starting with Dust Motes and then adding PS, the opening got a lot more respect and a lot less chatter than the Brixton show, possibly because of the gig being on a Sunday rather than a Friday, but the Birmingham crowd was very knowledgeable and stood and listened to the songs that they didn’t know, and danced and sang along to the ones they knew. The new songs got a strong reception and whilst not inducing as much dancing in the stalls as the older material, they still had pockets of arms waving and pogoing and the first successful UK audience participation on Tell Her I Said So.
Throwing in Born Of Frustration third certainly helped with getting the crowd going and It’s Hot gets stronger on every performance and takes on a life more vibrant than the Night Before version. Runaground gets a very warm reception as does Getting Away With It and an edgy rawer version of Fred Astaire than we’ve heard before. Despite success in the soundcheck, Tim sings Lost A Friend from lyrics sheet. Originally planned as a single back in 1997, it’s been lost from the James set ever since which is a real shame.
Sit Down again has the whole of the band at the front of the stage, with Mark and Dave stood behind the others who are seated. The whole place sings along. Don’t Wait That Long, despite some issues with the bass due to the low roof, is beautiful as is Rabbit Hole. The serenity is broken by two full on aural assaults – Jam J and God Only Knows – which sound and look incredible. Johnny Yen is rapturously received as is Ring The Bells, which creates a massive moshpit. Tim almost ends up on the balcony during Johnny Yen.
Sound takes on a new form, with an almost acoustic refrain, another twist on a song that takes new twists when it looks like it could get repetitive and the band always seem to pull something out that works. Stutter is again a brave set closer due to its unfamilarity, but not because of its musical and visual power.
The encore is a trio of songs from Laid that have everyone singing along – from the intimate paranoia of Out To Get You, to the celebratory chorus of Sometimes and finishing with an extended trumpet-driven romp through Laid itself.
All in all, an excellent gig, great sound and a very brave interesting setlist with an audience willing to listen and then go wild for the more familiar material. It’s a pity the venue is so awful that if you weren’t in the centre section, it was difficult to witness all of it.