Set 1 – Dust Motes / Hello / Alaskan Pipeline / The Shining / Someone’s Got It In For Me / Fairground / Just Like Fred Astaire / Upside / English Beefcake / We’re Going To Miss You / Hey Ma
Set 2 – Dream Thrum / Space / She’s A Star / Riders / The Lake / Fire So Close / Say Something / Medieval / Tomorrow / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)
Encore – Top Of The World / Hymn From A Village / Sometimes
VIP Soundcheck – Upside / Boom Boom / English Beefcake
James’ second night blew the first out of the water, so it would be interesting to see if they could repeat the trick in Manchester. It’s always a difficult trick to do for a band like James, who pride themselves in changing their setlists each night to get a balance without compromising both nights. Tonight, we lose Lookaway and Of Monsters And Heroes And Men, which have been two of the highlights of the tour so far, yet we get the debut of Upside and the return of English Beefcake. Heads we win, tales you lose.
The orchestra take to the stage first and are joined by Tim, who picks up the batons at Joe’s stand and starts to conduct them, finally into The William Tell Overture. This works equally well at the start of the show as it does at the end, and lightens the mood for those who are not sure what they’re going to get in this imposing venue.
What they get for starters is an instruction for Tim to sit back in their comfy chairs and relax and listen. Dust Motes and Hello is pretty much the perfect opening combination for this set. It dispels any notion that this is going to be a romp through a greatest hits set with an orchestra throwing some strings in and some pretty girls in a choir singing over the top. We had a fascinating conversation with Simon from the orchestra on the way to the pub post-soundcheck about the way rock and pop musicians view orchestras, with some even having a “no munters” rule.
Whilst Tim’s vocals undoubtedly steal the show on Dust Motes, the choir adds subtlety to the chorus and the orchestration fits the song perfectly when the end section kicks in. Hello is a perfect example of how the collaboration works – if seven-piece James played this live, you’d struggle to want it in the set every night as it doesn’t stand up to a lot of James’ best slower songs. However, give Mark a piano rather than keyboards and move Jim’s bass up in the mix and let Joe lead the orchestra and it turns into something you’d be truly upset if they dropped from this setlist.
Alaskan Pipeline is one of those best slower songs and whilst the arrangement is true to the original, it does allow for an extended opening that sends shivers up the spine, brilliant in its simplicity but flooding the room in emotion. Charlie’s soprano at the end adds an haunting feel to the song, beautifully in keeping with the original but demonstrating my earlier point.
The Shining has been a revelation. Whilst the original leads itself to orchestration, it isn’t one you would obviously pick, the band themselves not really playing this again after the 2000 theatre tour prior to the release of the Pleased To Meet You album. When the choir accompany Tim in the choir, there’s a gospel quasi-religious feel to it, lifting the whole song into the stratosphere, just as well as the seats at the back are about that far up.
Regular readers of these reviews will be aware of Tim’s issues with the stalker who’s been around and Tim once again takes the chance to tell the crowd about it and to ask them to be vigilant and not to lurch towards him if he comes out into the crowd, unless they’re the stalker. He jokes with a man who points at his wife. Larry dedicates the song to Tim. Someone’s Got It In For Me has always been a curious one in James’ catalogue – whilst there’s obviously a difference between how a song sounds in the live environment when the adrenalin is pumping and you have a huge PA to how a song sounds sat at home, this song more than most never quite had the same impact on record. It really doesn’t stand a chance against this version – strings and brass dominate the instrumental sections and turn the inherent drama of the song into an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Manchester responds with wild applause, and you sort of sense there an uncertainty whether people should be getting up and dancing.
Fairground is introduced as a song from years ago. What this does, along with the other Factory and Sire songs that have been played tonight, is to hopefully destroy the notion that these songs don’t fit with the rest of the catalogue. Shout for Johnny Yen all you like, but there’s so much more from that period that is as vital and integral to the James story than that one song. What would be fantastic is for the lasting legacy of this tour to be that these songs do not get pushed to the back of the room when setlists are being drawn up – the songs themselves speak much more for this band than a plaque on a wall and a scripted speech from a music executive who wouldn’t know all the band if they were stood next to them. Tim ends the song teasing lead violinist David by stealing his sheet music, jumping down into the front row and then tearing up the sheet.
As he’s already down in the crowd, he stays there for Just Like Fred Astaire, tonight serenading celebrity fan Peter Kay by changing the line to “just met a boy who believes we can fly” but sadly not able to entice him into showing off his dancing skills. He has more success with a girl in a white dress sat behind Peter, who can actually dance, before he goes down on one knee to sing to another man in the audience. He then makes his way back to the stage over the chairs.
We then get the debut on the tour of Upside. There’s been a bit of a fan-led campaign to convince Joe that this one needs to be in the set and despite a bit of a muddy version at the soundcheck, it sounds absolutely gorgeous in the full room. Saul’s gentle acoustic strum and Mark’s piano start the song off quietly, before everyone else joins in. Tim, thousands of miles away from home and loved ones, clearly feels the emotion in his words. The key change, which had been the subject of much discussion with the song at soundcheck, doesn’t sound at all X Factor.
One of the enduring and exciting features of James live shows has been the constant evolution of songs. Whilst it’s relatively easier to do this with a seven-piece who have known songs for years, it’s less so with a choir and orchestra close to fifty to number, but there’s no fear of trying new ideas from the choir and orchestra. English Beefcake sees the choir take a much more prominent role in the outro of the song, one of the girls taking a solo at the start of the “there’s nothing to say..” section, before the others join in.
Tim again dedicates Hey Ma to Blair and Bush, and he finishes the song embracing Andy, who with his new friends in the brass section, plays such an important role as the songs builds to its climax. There’s still a surreal feel to thousands of people singing songs about bodybags.
The first set ends with We’re Going To Miss You, with the band, choir and orchestra departing still singing the song, and the stage being empty at the end with the song being sung from backstage. It’s a clever well thought out lead into the interval. This song has bucked the trend with a lot of James songs – the recorded album version captures the essence and the menace of the song brilliantly, yet they hadn’t before this tour managed to capture that same feeling live, even dropping it on the Millionaires tour despite it being the current single at the time.
Dream Thrum opens the second set, and is the one slight disappointment. Retracing my view on this from the Zaragoza show, I said it would work perfectly with the orchestra, and it does, but what I get, with the benefit of it being surrounded by so many stunning resurrections and recreations, is the feeling that the orchestra and choir don’t add as much to it as they do to the other songs.
Space, in contrast, is a wildly different beast. The song starts moodily and edgy with an undercurrent of menace, but when the pace is upped, it’s one of themost intense moments of the set, particularly in Tim’s delivery, you sense he’s on the edge of bursting into tears.
Most of the band leave the stage, leaving Tim and Mark with the orchestra for a violin-led version of She’s A Star, that feels even more beautiful and heartfelt every time you hear it. Tim introduces Riders as the “sort of shit we were doing in the eighties”. For those of us longer in the tooth and remember the anarchic days of four-piece James in smaller venues, hearing several of these songs together, rather than as one-off additions to a set, brings memories flooding back. All the drama is still there despite the wider population on stage and the grandeur of the venues. Riders has a hold that seems to go on for ever where the song stops, Larry acknowledging someone in the crowd who shouts the “I threw the sucker to the floor”.
The Lake isn’t an eighties song, but it will be the most unfamiliar song to most of the crowd tonight. It doesn’t matter whether the listener knows it really should have been the centerpiece of Laid or has never heard it before, it blows people away, from its simple introduction through a build where brass and strings come in to Tim taking centre stage with a vocal where you can almost see the emotion coming out of his mouth. I’m running short of superlatives after eight days of this, so I’m not going to try and find another one for it.
More of that eighties stuff next – Fire So Close has to be restarted when Tim gets a line wrong, trying to pass blame to the choir jokingly by saying they need to sing what he’s singing, not what’s in the lyrics. At the end, once the guitar and violin duel has been fought out again, Tim tells us that the one thing they’ve taught the choir and orchestra is that it’s OK to fuck up and start a song again and suggests Joe start a career as a novel conductor who stops classical pieces five minutes in and starts them again.
Say Something starts to see some movement in the crowd, who, whilst listening attentively and applauding wildly, are still reluctant to get up en masse and dance. The two girls singing with Tim add so much to this song and the strings are perfectly suited to the pace and the melody of the song.
Medieval is introduced as “more crap from the 80s”, but is anything but. With Larry on banjo, the song is completely reinvigorated and revitalized, the “we are sound” refrain almost a motif for this whole tour. Whilst some of the moves are a bit dodgy, watching the choir dance to this and other songs shows just how deep the connection has been made between the three groups on stage.
Tim orders the crowd to “just dance” as the string section blast, or whatever the string section equivalent is, out the opening bars to Tomorrow. In an alternate reality version of this tour, you’d have this as one of a string of hits and it wouldn’t stand out, but the clever thing about the set and the pacing of it is that this is the release valve, the reward for the crowd having respectfully listened and taken in what has gone before. It’s wild and the whole of Manchester stands up and dances.
They stay on their feet for Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) which has Tim dancing with the choir and Larry on the other, before Larry goes on a tour round the back of Dave and the orchestra, playing to the crowd in the choir before coming back full circle. Manchester then gives everyone the loudest ovation of the tour so far, and well deserved it is too. The main set has raised the bar every so slightly tonight, the little tweaks and turns being added to the set, making it different each night.
The mood is brought back down for Top Of The World, which again sees Tim out in the circle seats, perched precariously on a balcony, a brave move given his earlier revelations. There’s silence from the crowd as they hang on his every word, before being sucked in by Saul’s stunning violin.
The sound of trumpet fills the air from off-stage and Andy appears at the top of the gallery, whilst Tim makes his way to the back of the choir to start Hymn From A Village amongst the crowd at the back. He makes his way down back to stage from there, avoiding getting lost in the myriad of corridors in the venue as he did last night. Hymn retains the raw power of its original despite being augmented by strings and brass and a choir.
And so onto Sometimes. This tour has proved that the UK audiences have taken this song and adopted it as the real James anthem. The chorus of “sometimes when I look in your eyes, I can see your soul” says everything you need to know about this band. You’d never class James as soul music in the traditional dictionary sense, but that’s where this comes from. There’s head and heart in the lyrics, but you just have to look at 5,000 people singing this back over and over again to know you’re witnessing something truly special. It doesn’t need the easy and understandable tagging of Laid on to it – in fact that detracts from it as it brings the reaction of the crowd to a halt. When the music kicks in at the end, the string and brass sections stand up and throw themselves into it and it feels like a collision of two worlds into one and creating a better place for everyone. Wonderful wonderful stuff.
No more superlatives. This was the best gig of the tour so far. The sound was spot on again, the crowd respectful when they should have been and wild when they should have been. You just need to look at the faces of the band, the orchestra and the choir at the end to know that it’s as special down there on stage as it is up in the crowd.