Set 1 – Dream Thrum / Lookaway / Fairground / Really Hard / Say Something / Dust Motes / Hello / Just Like Fred Astaire / Of Monsters And Heroes And Men / We’re Going To Miss You / Hey Ma
Set 2 – English Beefcake / Bubbles / The Lake / She’s A Star / Fire So Close / Top Of The World / Hymn From A Village / Sometimes / Someone’s Got It In For Me / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Space
Encore – Alaskan Pipeline / Medieval
VIP Soundcheck – Someone’s Got It In For Me / Dust Motes / Hello
Well it’s difficult to know where to start with this. The orchestra and choir were already going to make this tour something special, even if we had been treated to a Greatest Hits type set, but tonight’s set rolls the sometimes mooted rare songs and b-sides into it as well. There’s parts of the second half of the set where you’re expecting the run-in of the bigger hits to kick in, and you get one, then it’s back to the lesser-known tracks. Songs that could work in the setting like Sound or Waltzing Along don’t get a look-in as we get songs that are resurrected beyond the dreams of even the wildest James enthusiast.
Just on 8, and you need to make sure you get there by 8 if you’re going, the orchestra walk on and play a short piece before the band come on. Dream Thrum opens, which was a bit of a giveaway from pictures of the rehearsals, but it’s perfect for the orchestra and choir to take the songto a different level – the choir harmonies in themselves like another instrument. Lookaway builds to a stunning crescendo of an almost call and response cry of the chorus between Tim and the choir.
Whilst Tim, Larry and Jim are onstage the whole time, the rest of the band flit on and off as the arrangements require. Fairground sees them back as a four-piece (plus orchestra/choir). Followed by Really Hard, it’s incredible to think that these two songs are getting close to thirty years old and sound as fresh and invigorated in this setting as they’ve ever done.
Say Something has two girls from the choir come to the front and help with the soaring chorus. Not a favourite of mine in recent setlists, it benefits hugely from the translation it’s gone through by Joe Duddell. The crowd cheer is the loudest so far of the evening, and you have to feel slightly sorry for the more casual fan who wasn’t expecting this approach and this set. It’s like Christmases all coming at once for the hardcore, but, to be fair to the Cardiff crowd, they are totally respectful of what’s going on up on stage. You can feel they want to get up and dance and it comes through in clapping at some odd parts in some inappropriate places in songs, but they sit and listen and applaud.
Dust Motes again makes perfect use of the choir and it segues beautifully into Hello. Mark is the star on the piano, and Larry recognises this by telling the crowd that’s why he loves him. Just Like Fred Astaire is next, and you sense Tim feels a bit restricted up on stage with people sat down less than twenty feet away from him, so he jumps down and goes walkabout, shaking hands, singing to people and at one point, challenging a guy sat, while all around him are standing, to break into a smile. A girl runs down and hugs him. The orchestra improvise around Tim’s walk into the crowd making him come in a few bars late.
Back on stage, Of Monsters And Heroes And Men is even darker and broodier with the orchestra building the drama. Tim tells us there’s a couple of songs left before the interval because they’re being “posh” and Larry jokes that everyone will just want a fag. We’re Going To Miss You is introduced as a song to ward off a stalker and is another surprise in the set. As with the other songs, the arrangements are simply stunning, transforming the song completely. The first half of the set ends with a stunning Hey Ma, which feels simple yet incredibly complex at the same time.
Following the interval, the band come back out and Larry admits he has to keep asking Jim what to do on the next song, English Beefcake. Again, it’s reinvented and reinvigorated, words I will be sick of writing, and you’ll be sick of hearing by the end of next week no doubt. You can see Tim thrive on having the choir there to sing with – particularly on the Millionaires and Pleased To Meet You tracks, they have missed Kulas when they’ve been played live.
Larry tries to start the wrong song and Tim starts to take the mickey out of him needing bifocals, but then walks across and sees that Larry actually has a different setlist to everyone else. Bubbles is simply breathtaking. On record, it demonstrates so much that is great about James, the slow build and then the explosion of the music and Tim at his best with lyrics that come as if in a stream of consciousness. With the orchestra, it’s simply even more spectacular.
And then The Lake. Tim had been pretty insistent that this was in the set, even last year when they did the rehearsals in Salford. When we ended up on the same flight to Zaragoza at the start of the month, he was excited that he’d finally talked the others round. This was the first time it had even been performed to a public audience, and it was simply beautiful. Whilst it doesn’t have the singalong quality of the singles or even Out To Get You, it is one, if not, the, stand-out track from the Laid sessions, and this tour is probably a fitting setting for it.
She’s A Star is next and again brings some people to their feet. It’s slowed down, the strings are beautiful and Tim nails the vocals.
As if the setlist so far hasn’t been unusual enough, Fire So Close is brought back into the set. Four of the male choir come down to the front, a violinist comes down. Tim and the choir guys chant the lyrics and the song ends with a duel between Larry’s guitar and the violin and a final chant of the chorus. It’s utter genius – the whole concept of handing over the back catalogue to a fresh pair of eyes and ears has given us a reinvention that you could never ever have dreamt of.
Top Of The World, which got a mention in the soundcheck from an audience member who had submitted it as part of her GCSE English coursework and which features on the video from last year’s Salford workshop, is as eerie as ever, the spine-tingling bass augmented by subtle fluorishes from the orchestra. Hymn From A Village is a song that shouldn’t work with an orchestra, but does perfectly – the jangly guitar replaced by strings without losing its frenetic tribal qualities.
When the opening bars of Sometimes start, the crowd sense this is the time to break free from their seats, as if they’d been waiting for an invitation all night, and it becomes an interesting mix, a rock gig environment, but with the songs augmented by the orchestra. The choir and crowd singing the refrain in unison is beautiful as well, no forced spontaneity, just a celebration of a beautiful lyric.
You almost expect it now to be Laid, goodnight and an encore of a slow one, Getting Away With It and Ring The Bells to send everyone home happy, but there’s more twists and turns to come. People sit back down as Someone’s Got It In For Me builds a dramatic picture before crashing into the chorus, the orchestra at the heart of it.
Getting Away With It has the crowd back on their feet and ends with the choir and crowd alternating in singing the “all messed up” part of the chorus. For something from the dying days of pre-reformation James, it has stood the test of time wonderfully and sits their proudly against all their biggest hits and great songs.
Tim jokes that the last song would be another big hit if they were a normal band, but because they’re not they’re going to find another obscure song to finish the set with, and Space is definitely an interesting choice as set closer. It starts very sparsely, but builds to a stunning climax, aided by subtle but impacting lighting.
The crowd rise as one to salute them, and they come back for a simply stunning version of Alaskan Pipeline. It’s a very fragile song and the opening instrumental section is extended for the orchestra to demonstrate their outrageous talents. Apart from the odd clapping which dies down quite quickly, it’s beautifully respected by the crowd, some of whom must be wondering when the big hits finish is going to come in.
Of course, this being willing awkward James, and with the evil genius of Joe on the side of those wanting long-forgotten gems from the back catalogue, it doesn’t happen. Medieval though cannot have disappointed anyone. With Larry on banjo, the song builds like a train with no brakes gathering speed on a downhill part of track, and ends with band, orchestra, choir and crowd chanting the “We are sound” refrain over and over. And that’s it.
I’m going to save on superlatives in the summing up. Just look at the setlist, imagine what you will get when a bunch of talented musicians with an improvisational spirit meet an orchestra of the highest calibre and a choir, which, whilst young in years, has an instinctive feel for what works with the melodies put in front of them, and, crucially, with Tim. I walked out in a bit of a daze, legs a bit weak and emotionally a little drained.
Leave your preconceptions at the door and as Tim tweeted, be there for 8 and leave the hits at the door.