SetlistSet 1 - Dust Motes / Hello / Alaskan Pipeline / The Shining / Someone's Got It In For Me / Fairground / Just Like Fred Astaire / Hymn From A Village / We're Going To Miss You / Hey Ma
Set 2 - She's A Star / Space / Lookaway / Riders / The Lake / Fire So Close / Say Something / Tomorrow / Medieval / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)
Encore - Top Of The World / Of Monsters And Heroes And Men / Sometimes
VIP Soundcheck - Just Like Fred Astaire / Tomorrow / Fairground
So onto Manchester for the first of two nights at the stunning Bridgewater Halls. Tim tells the crowd that they need to allow them to be seduced on a quiet Monday night as they start the set with the combination of Dust Motes and Hello. The sound up in the gods is close to perfect. When Tim sings cuckoo at the start of the Dust Motes chorus and the choir subtlely echo it, it gives me goosebumps as you can hear every detail in the voice, which often gets lost in the more traditional arenas that James frequent. Hello, Alaskan Pipeline and The Shining have a similar impact, the sound is crystal clear and that allows the beauty of the instrumentation to shine through and the soprano ending to Alaskan Pipeline is simply astonishing in its fragility. There’s a comedy moment prior to Alaskan Pipeline when Joe has the wrong setlist and almost starts the wrong song – not sure yet if it’s actually intended as a practical joke as it’s the third time on the tour someone has had the wrong one. Saul jokes that it didn’t happen when Joe orchestrated Elbow here a couple of years ago, probably because they paid him more money. At the end Tim fesses up to making “deliberate mistakes” with the words.
Before Someone’s Got It In For Me, Tim announces he has a stalker who has been distributing photocopied flyers threatening to do him in and that he’s worried because of the stalker’s poor punctuation, grammar and spelling. He asks people if they see anything to report it and if he comes into the crowd tonight to hold their hands up when he goes near them and not to make any sudden movements. He then dedicates the song to the stalker. The song soars in this magnificent building as the choir’s harmonies are layered on top of the string section. Fairground feels like it was written as a folk waltz and Tim says at the end that it’s hard to believe that it was written by ignorant teenagers.
Tim leaps into the stalls for Just Like Fred Astaire and makes his way through and across the seating area, which is a brave move given his previous revelation. Andy starts Hymn From A Village with a trumpet salvo from up in the choir seats in front of the organ. I’m not sure if the organ is a functioning one, but it would have been quite cool to hear Mark use it on a song at some point. The set is building nicely to the conclusion of the first half and this structure, with songs of similar pace being moved in and out of it, seems to work much better than the previous one did. There isn’t much dancing at this point, for most of the first half there’s one lone girl in a grey shirt in the stalls who’s on her feet for most of it, but you can tell from the reception that is forthcoming at the end of each song that people are listening and taking this in. There’s no Friday or Saturday night alcohol bravado in the crowd tonight, but it doesn’t detract from the atmosphere in the first half.
Hey Ma and We’re Going To Miss You take us to the interval. The former, as I’ve said before, is a revelation in this arrangement. It holds all the venom and anger of the original, but with the addition of the strings and the harps, it has a new simmering brooding threat to it as well.
Tim comes back out for the encore with the orchestra and conducts them through the William Tell Overture before berating Joe for not coming out with him, not using a baton and, heinous crime, not wearing a jacket. She’s A Star’s delicious stripped-down arrangement, without guitars and drums, works wonderfully and you feel the crowd is now waiting to be asked to get up and dance, but aren’t quite sure what the protocol is on a Monday night. Space and Lookaway are similar songs in structure, both starting off slowly before building to a crescendo, but are very different beasts, the former showcasing the string section and the latter demonstrating how well the choir is used to lift Tim’s vocals.
Riders is described by Tim as James’ 80s pop hit, although you suspect its theme and the drama of the song as it builds then crashes to a halt before taking an almost sinister turn would turn off the playlisters at Radio 1.
The Lake is again the highlight of the evening. You sense Tim feels a particular sense of pride in this song and the fact he’s won the others over to put it in the set. Whereas the addition of brass and the less sparse instrumentation of this version could have detracted from the spindly beauty of the original, it adds to it.
Fire So Close then rivals it in the obscure song show stealing competition. It’s the type of song James of today would never write because of the seven people in the band, but it has the James spirit that flows through all recordings from Jimone to The Morning After – the edginess of the guitar / violin duel, the passion in the vocals.
Say Something has two girls from the choir come down to sing with Tim, which he jokes is his favourite part of the evening. They, and the strings orchestration, add so much to the song, making it very different from the version that you get at seven-piece James gigs. There’s a few more standing up and dancing at this point, and you can count them on both hands. Tim takes matters into his own hands and tells people they can get up and dance. I don’t think once Tomorrow kicks in, he was going to need to tell people. It’s a great addition to the set, because it, more than any other song, shows the real versatility of the orchestra as it’s the most genuine out and out rock song of the night and they don’t sound out of place on it at all.
Tim orders the crowd to stay on their feet for Medieval, which manages the uneviable task of sitting between Tomorrow and Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) in the set without feeling at all out of place. It’s magical to see choir, orchestra and band singing the refrain to it at the end.
For the encore, Tim appears in the circle seats to sing Top Of The World, wandering down stairs and perching himself on the balcony looking down over the stalls. Saul takes over with the violin as the focus shifts back down to the stage. The song never fails to get a reaction from the crowd, listening in awe to the vocals and the music. It moves into Of Monsters And Heroes And Men, which has a longer opening section because Tim gets lost on the way back down to the stage. He jokes with Saul that he’ll be annoyed because he had to play violin for longer and Saul retorts that playing one note for so long isn’t a good thing. The song itself fits right into the encore, even more so than the normal set.
Sometimes brings the evening to a close with chaos. Tim climbs at the back of the stage to embrace people in the choir seats, ends up in the audience, curates a singing competition of the chorus between choir and crowd, urging the crowd to sing louder because they’r not Londoners. Everyone in the place is on their feet.
Even with a set very similar to Saturday’s Liverpool gig, they were two very different evenings. Whilst the Manchester crowd was much quieter, there wasn’t the restlessness that there’s been on some of the quieter midweek shows. The performance was up there with any of them so far and the audience got what was going on, the older, the more obscure songs getting receptions that matched the more familiar tunes. As this was the “up” set from the two Liverpool gigs, it’ll be interesting to see what changes we get tonight.