Set 1 – Dream Thrum / Lookaway / Fairground / Say Something / Dust Motes / Hello / Riders / Just Like Fred Astaire / Of Monsters And Heroes And Men / Hey Ma / We’re Going To Miss You
Set 2 – She’s A Star / Hymn From A Village / Bubbles / The Lake / Really Hard / Fire So Close / Alaskan Pipeline / Sometimes / Someone’s Got It In For Me / Medieval
Encore – Top Of The World / Space / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)
VIP Soundcheck – The Lake / Space / The Shining
The Philharmonic was packed to capacity for the first of two nights. Compared to the rest of the venues on this tour, it’s a lot more compact, holding just over 1,500. The band come on just after 8 and launch into Dream Thrum and there are a few issues with Saul’s set-up that take a few songs to clear up. Despite there being a few people getting up to dance and a couple of exuberant boxes of lads, the response to the first half of the set is relatively muted compared to previous nights and there doesn’t appear to be the same connection and buy-in to what’s going on up on stage.
Once Saul’s sound issues are cleared up, the acoustics work fantastically well. The choir’s harmonies on Look Away lift the song off to a different level. Fairground is almost like a folky waltz and Say Something gets the first big cheer of the evening with more people standing up to dance along.
As Mark’s beautiful piano opening to Dust Motes pierces the atmosphere, you almost feel there’s a sense of disappointment in parts of the crowd that there’s no run of hits to turn the evening into the huge singalong celebration that Liverpool gigs usually are. As Tim later tries to tell the crowd with little success, this was the first place people sat down to Sit Down and the Royal Court gigs count as some of my favourites and the very best. Tonight though, it just feels that the audience’s expectations, as a whole (not you as an individual), are not quite in line with what’s going on. That’s not a criticism, just an observation as this is very different to a usual James gig. Tim is a little quieter than usual during the first half of the first set as well.
The Dust Motes / Hello combination is the centrepiece of the first half of the set and the two songs work beautifully combined together, even though they were separated at birth by 12 years. The orchestra lifts Dust Motes in just the right places and completely transforms Hello from an album track to a thing of genuine beauty.
Riders changes the mood somewhat. Andy’s menacing trumpet sounds build the drama up as the song marches to its first false conclusion and then the choir and Tim take over. Jumping into the crowd for Just Like Fred Astaire gets people on their feet and Tim spends most of the song dancing with a guy in the aisle wearing a pink tutu. You feel this might be the point the gig lifts off, but everyone sits back down for a stunning version of Of Monsters And Heroes And Men. Hey Ma has all the frenzy and build it has had on previous nights but even Tim is taken aback when a group near the front holler the “within, without” part back to him before the second chorus.
We’re Going To Miss You now works really well as the end of the first part of the set. The refrain as first the orchestra and choir and band leave the stage is sung back by the crowd.
For the start of the second set, Tim comes back out and conducts the orchestra through the William Tell Overture, whilst dancing. It’s a great way to get the crowd interested again after the break, but probably not as much as opening the second half with She’s A Star, which gets people up dancing and singing again. The reworking is beautiful, perfectly paced and delivered by the orchestra, choir and Mark on piano and Tim’s voices is pitched in the middle of it, dripping with emotion.
Hymn From A Village follows and starts with Andy in the stalls playing trumpet, before the strings kick in on Jim’s bassline. People sing along around the hall, but generally stay seated.
Bubbles takes the pace down slightly and is superb tonight – it hadn’t quite felt it had been nailed on previous outings, but tonight it drips with emotion before exploding into the melee of orchestra and Tim’s vocals at the end. The Lake is similarly wrought with emotion and passion and although possibly not known by many in the crowd gets a fantastic reaction. There are now however a few shouts for more familiar songs such as Laid and Johnny Yen and you sense a little bit of impatience creeping in.
Really Hard, despite being close to 30 years old, feels like it was written for this occasion. Similarly, its partner in early James crime, Fire So Close, despite Tim bringing it to a halt the first time because his in-ear monitors were being overwhelmed by Larry’s guitar, has that folky edge which has translated, surprisingly for me, brilliantly to this environment due to Joe’s arrangements. Tim jokes with Joe that it must be the first time that he’s had someone stop a song midway through to start again and that’s the price of working with amateurs. He then tells Joe he’s disappointed that he’s not even using a baton to conduct the orchestra.
Alaskan Pipeline, again, is a highlight of the set. Hidden away at the end of Pleased To Meet You, it now comes to the forefront of these gigs. The orchestra are simply stunning yet simple in the intro and the choir deliver beautiful harmonies.
It’s time though to get the place going and Sometimes does exactly that. It ends with Tim, stood aloft on a monitor, conducting a competition between crowd and choir to see who can sing the loudest. There’s not much point in trying to get the crowd to shut up though as they’ve found their feet and voice at this point. The great thing about Sometimes on this tour, apart from being the “big” singalong moment in the gig, is how it’s still different every night, the orchestra and choir being as much part of that as the band.
Someone’s Got It In For Me wrings wet with emotion, dripping from the strings and from Tim’s impassioned delivery. The addition of brass to it, whilst unnecessary to make the song work, adds a lot to it.
The main set ends with Medieval. Tim jokes that it’s only in the set to see if Larry can play the banjo, and, as on other nights, there’s chaos in stage with the choir at the front dancing and singing along, Saul and Mark on drums, and ends with the orchestra up on their feet singing the “we are sound” refrain, which doesn’t catch on as well with the crowd as on previous nights.
The encore is the highlight of the gig tonight. The acoustics of the venue work wonderfully for Jim’s bass on Top Of The World and Saul delivers a violin solo that is special, even by the high standards he’s set himself on this tour. Space builds to a climax which again has Tim right on the edge as he half sings half shouts the outro, and Getting Away With It provides the perfect finale with Tim dancing with the choir, Larry roaming the stage like a minstrel. The orchestra takes the song and hammers their motif all over the instrumental sections.
All in all, a very interesting gig with a very different feel to the other nights. It’s difficult to create a setlist that works on a Thursday night in Nottingham and have something similar that works on a Friday night in Liverpool. Liverpool crowds have been great for James and there have been some fantastic celebratory gigs here – Royal Court in 89 and 91 and 97, L2 in 99 and the 2008 Academy gig and they showed on the 2000 theatre tour that they get James playing new songs, but I left with a feeling last night that the crowd’s expectations weren’t quite met, or had been set in the wrong place for this gig as an orchestrated version of the Greatest Hits was what people wanted. It felt a little more subdued on stage as well, and despite the performance being as good as previous nights, the connection wasn’t there the whole time, although the end of Sometimes was every bit as memorable as the end of the Glasgow show.
It will be interesting to see how the set changes and the audience reaction tonight.