Set 1 – Dust Motes / Hello / Alaskan Pipeline / Really Hard / The Shining / Fairground / Just Like Fred Astaire / Someone’s Got It In For Me / Hey Ma / We’re Going To Miss You
Set 2 – She’s A Star / Space / Riders / The Lake / Fire So Close / Say Something / Boom Boom / Medieval / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Sometimes
Encore – Top Of The World / Hymn From A Village / Tomorrow
VIP Soundcheck – Strangers / Really Hard / Boom Boom
So onto the penultimate show of the tour and it’s a new venue for James, the Sage in Gateshead. It’s a stunning building, situated by the Tyne, and the inside of the venue is no less spectacular. It’s also renowned as one of the best venues in Europe, if not the best, for sound.
Dust Motes and Hello have cemented them firmly in the set as the openers over the second half of the tour and they work perfectly. Tim tells the crowd they’re going to start quietly so people should sit back and listen. The stories regarding the sound are spot on, Tim’s voice is crystal clear and you can hear a pin drop in the Sage as the audience do as they are told. When the drums kick in, you can distinguish the instruments in the louder section of the song. It segues into Hello, which equally benefits from the clarity of the sound. Alaskan Pipeline completes the trio of slower opening songs, the strings and Jim’s bass have the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, such is the intensity of the sound. When Charlie from the choir sings the soprano part at the end, you can almost feel her vocal cords vibrating.
Tim introduces Really Hard as his opportunity to use his deep voice. He rebuffs another call of “C’mon Tim” by telling the shouter that it’s going on, but internally. It’s not had a lot of plays on this tour and has flitted in and out of the set, but it is a great opportunity to show part of Tim’s vocal range that isn’t used too much. The choir’s backing vocals provide a lift without overtaking the song. The male parts of the choir have a similar impact on The Shining.
Fairground is introduced as a song about a time when there was a fight within James and the song was written in the aftermath, which explains its almost lurching rhythm. At the end of the song, Tim picks up lead violin David’s sheet music and draws him forward to the front of the stage. At the end of the song, Tim says he’s tempted to rip up all the orchestra’s sheet music and see how they would cope. It’d be a very interesting experiment, and looking at how they have adapted to the James way of working, you’d think it could actually be something quite spectacular.
The crowd has been extremely attentive up to this point, sitting and listening to the songs, giving them a wonderful response and there hasn’t been too many shouts for hits, although there’s one for Johnny Yen, which makes me wonder if it’s the same person doing all the shows until he gets to hear it. Anyway, Just Like Fred Astaire sees Tim jump into the crowd, serenade a couple of punters in the stalls and then position himself precariously over a couple of seats before making his way back, almost relay style with the microphone, back to the stage. It’s a little bit of theatre that livens the crowd up and gives many of them a great photo opportunity and even the chance to dance with Tim. What it detracts from is how well the orchestration of it works – it’s never been a song they’ve completely nailed live previously.
Tim’s interrupted in telling the story about his stalker by Joe starting Someone’s Got It In For Me, which has all the twists and turns in it amplified by the quality of sound in the hall, there’s so much drama and emotion packed into four minutes that you feel the song could burst under the weight of itself if the orchestration wasn’t spot on.
Hey Ma is introduced as being dedicated to Blair and Bush, but Larry chirps in and says it’s also a love song to your mum, which Tim tells us is a strange paradox. The choir clap along and parts of the crowd join in – there’s no extended harp section today, which is a bit of a shame as it builds a lot of tension in the song before it crashes then into the final section.
We’re Going To Miss You completes the first half of the set, before we go and have, as Tim puts it, cucumber sandwiches and wine. He tells us the story about his stalker, but that he feels safe in the North East because he wouldn’t dare take on the crowd. At the end of the song, everyone leaves the stage still singing the chorus, and Larry even indulging in a spot of jazz hands as he shares his mic with Tim.
For the second half, Tim comes out and asks the crowd if they’re getting it, to which someone responds that he should do “his dance”. He ignores the shout and picks up the baton and there’s interplay with him and the orchestra before they do a short section of the William Tell Overture. As Joe comes out, another heckler shouts to Tim to tell a joke, Tim retorts that what he just did was a joke. He then banters with Joe about the romance and mystery of the orchestra and Joe’s northern roots, him calling the podium a stand.
Mark joins the stage and he and Tim with the orchestra deliver a spine-tingling version of She’s A Star, stripped of guitar and the end section. Larry watches it from the crowd like the rest of us. The crowd go wild for it, Tim acknowledges that he knows the audience want a party and that it will come, to which Saul quips that it won’t, and then Tim tells them they want to show everyone there’s more than one way to be brilliant.
Space and Riders show perfectly that it is the lesser known songs that are benefitting from their reinvention and reintroduction in the set, and what Joe has done, other than create the magical arrangements for the orchestra and the choir parts, is to become the eighth member of James for a few weeks and drive this reassessment of the band’s past. It’s not that difficult to see there’s appeared to have been some reluctance to play lots of Millionaires and Pleased To Meet You since the reformation, but Space is a great little song that, like other counterparts from its album, got lost in the wish to go out with a hits-driven bang in 2001. Riders, like most of Strip-Mine and its b-sides, were almost unique to their time, but fit perfectly into James’ back catalogue and into this set.
The Lake was absolutely incredible again. You feel yourself drawn into the emotional washing machine, as Tim describes what’s going on down on stage. I’m sat writing this on a train off iphone notes and I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. Tim tells the crowd it’s a little b-side and not Sit Down.
Fire So Close is introduced as one of the earliest songs James wrote. It’s written on the setlists as Why So Close, but the spirit of it is closer to its earlier, faster, more dynamic Factory incarnation with the backing vocals and the energy of the interaction between Larry on guitar and David from the orchestra on violin. It has a new extended outro with just violin over Tim and the choir repeating part of the song, which works really well. You’re also drawn to Jim, sat at the side, tapping his hand on his knee and laughing at the end of the song. Reading Tim’s tweets and listening to comments in the soundchecks, you sense this is as much as a revelatory experience for the band as it is for the fans who’ve seen them plenty of times before.
Say Something gets a huge cheer as the strings transform Larry’s opening guitar section and Harriet and Pippa from the choir accompany Tim in the verses. There’s still a lot of respect though as there’s not much dancing in the crowd at this point, people preferring to listen and take this in.
Boom Boom gets reintroduced after a sole play earlier in the tour in Glasgow. It demonstrates the evolution of the songs throughout the tour as it sounds far more together, and the orchestra and choir led instrumental section at the end is wonderful. The band themselves look almost awe-struck at just how brilliant it works.
There’s a cry from the back of the stalls to play Laid, which Tim politely puts down and introduces Medieval as the song that would have been the big song at the end of the James set in the 80s. Saul stops him to enquire why there’s a centre seat in the second row, which would be one of the best seats in the house, empty and whether the person sat there left half-way through. Medieval has the sheen of the additonal mixing it got on Strip-Mine wiped off it and stripped back to a primal, tribal beat, which turns into all the patrons on stage standing and chanting the “we are sound” refrain. It’s magnificent.
Most of the crowd finally take the plunge and get to their feet as the opening section of Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) starts up. There’s some interesting dancing from one of the girls in the choir who takes Tim on face-to-face. Larry goes walkabout with an enormous grin on his face.
Sometimes brings the main set to its close. It ends with another sing-off between choir and audience, led by Tim, who improves some of the lyrics in the lead-in to the crowd joining in, which seems to half-confuse Larry. It’s not as quite as loud as other night, but you just need to look at the joy on the faces of the people singing it to know that it doesn’t really matter. As they leave the stage, Tim introduces the orchestra and choir again, and then, when introducing Joe, tells the crowd that it’s his fault that they’re not playing Laid.
The encore starts with a very short dedication by Jim to someone who couldn’t be at the gig. Top Of The World sees Tim stay on stage rather than go out into the circle. Andy has no such qualms starting Hymn From A Village on trumpet from the top tier of the venue. The song represents perfectly the chaos of this whole show – there’s so much going on up there, but it all fits together beautifully – a minor 80s indie hit with strings and brass and trumpet and a choir could be incredibly cheesy, but isn’t and it’s testament to the people involved that it isn’t.
The set closes with Tomorrow, which gets everyone back up dancing and has a new end section, led by Dave’s drums that has some of the tribal qualities of Medieval earlier. The crowd, to a man and woman, are up on their feet at the end to recognise what they had just witnessed.
It’s difficult to try and compare this to other shows. The sound quality meant people were much more inclined to sit down and listen and there’s massive respect due to the people of the North East, who are usually some of the noisiest and more boisterous James crowds, that they sat and listened and responded at the end of the songs. There even wasn’t that much dissent for the lack of hits, other than from a few probably inebriated hecklers. You can sense the chemistry up on stage and the bonds that have been formed are getting firmer and firmer and the collective grief, as Tim eloquently put it on Twitter, that this is coming to an end is starting to kick in here too.