Set 1 – Dust Motes / Hello / Alaskan Pipeline / The Shining / Fairground / Lookaway / Just Like Fred Astaire / Someone’s Got It In For Me / Bubbles / Hey Ma / We’re Going To Miss You
Set 2 – She’s A Star / Space / English Beefcake / Riders / The Lake / Fire So Close / Of Monsters And Heroes And Men / Say Something / Hymn From A Village / Medieval / Sometimes
Encore – Dream Thrum / Tomorrow / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Top Of The World
Last time, James played the Albert Hall, it felt like a bit of an anti-climax – the venue isn’t set up for full-on rock concerts, the crowd was a bit mixed and everything didn’t quite gel. The place can be intimidating even for a band of James history, stature and track record of taking on crowds and challenging them with something new and different. So it’s with a little trepidation and a lot of sadness that this could be the last time we see this coming together of three different musical groups into a melting pot of strings, brass, harmonies and rock and roll that we take our seats.
As for the last shows, the band take the sensible approach of starting slowly and getting the crowd to listen to the more tender and fragile moments of the set before turning the volume and pace up later in the set. If you’ve read my reviews so far, you’ll know the seguing of Dust Motes and Hello is a thing of incredible beauty and Barry has got the sound absolutely right to fill the cavernous spaces of the hall. Similarly, when Charlie from the choir comes to the front of the stage to sing her soprano part over the outro of Alaskan Pipeline, it’s almost as if her voice is swirls round the arena. The song itself could melt your heart if you let it, gently lilting, but at the same time swelling with emotion. The choir and orchestra make The Shining transcend its position as a largely-ignored album track and give it an almost anthemic-feel. Anthemic in the vein of Last Night Of The Proms rather than Sit Down.
The whole beauty of this tour is not just in the orchestra and the choir, but also in the way that Joe Duddell has made James delve into their back catalogue, including the parts of it they haven’t really visited at all since the reformation. There’s as many songs tonight off Strip-Mine than there are off Laid and more than off Gold Mother, and Seven hasn’t been represented on the tour at all which is a calculated gamble given it was their most successful commercial non-compilation album so far. Whilst James have always tried to be a forward-looking band, this tour was a fantastic opportunity to show people they haven’t forgotten that it wasn’t just the big singalong hits that got them their following. The cheers of recognition for the lesser-known songs on this tour has been heartwarming. Going forward, it will hopefully mean that James aren’t afraid to go off-piste and throw in a real curveball or two as they did on their US tour last year. That said, that can’t be at the cost of new exciting, dynamic music, whether it be influenced by this experience or whether they do an about turn and produce a hard, balls-out rock record.
Anyway, I digress, Fairground proves that point. Tim dragging David from the orchestra to the front by stealing his sheet music might look a bit cheesy the tenth time you’ve seen it, but it still looks spontaneous and gets a reaction from the crowd, who so far have sat and listened. London crowds have a reputation for being harder work than in other places for a band, but there are people up dancing in the stalls even this early on.
Lookaway also proves the point. One of two songs from the Morning After album, it shows that James still have the ability in them to write a song that could be played on radio and could be a hit, if the radio pluggers and playlist choosers today didn’t have their own agendas, one of which seems to be to kill off guitar music. Tim tells the crowd about his stalker and that The Sun claim he was terrified, and he makes light of it by telling them that it was the spelling and grammar that made him scared. Larry jokes that if anyone sees a red dot on Tim’s forehead that they should get out of the way. The choir bring the song to a crescendo (and the revelation in the soundcheck that that song had been scored but not played makes me sad) and demonstrate yet again how vital they are to this, despite being relatively less experienced compared to the orchestra and choir. Their obvious joy and excitement at being part of this whole thing and unique dancing adds much to the set even on top of their wonderful singing. You can even see Joe singing along at this point.
Tim makes his way into the seats at the side for Just Like Fred Astaire, stopping to sing to members of the crowd en route. It gets a lot of stalls to their seats as well, although there’s not lots of room to dance in the hall. Someone’s Got It In For Me was almost made for shows like this, it has all the gripping drama and tension you need in the music once you let the orchestra loose on it and Tim’s voice is sounding as great as it ever did. Bubbles also has that, the best description I’ve heard of it is from Lee on the Hey Ma commentary where he calls it a smorgasbord of everything about James – it’s fitting then to have the orchestra take it and adapt it to sound different, but retain that feeling of exhilaration as the song takes off.
Hey Ma is spiteful and damning of the Bush / Blair wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is also an incredible pop song, damned to never get radio play by its chorus. The addition of the orchestra and choir on this one don’t change the song significantly as they do on other songs, but they do is to weave their way into the fabric of the song such that you feel they were there all the time. People are on their feet and dancing and singing along, uplifted by what they’re seeing up their on stage.
We’re Going To Miss You is another song that has been plucked from relative obscurity by Joe and transformed into something magnificent and uplifting. The chorus lends itself to be sung along to, firstly by the choir who put that soar into the song that Kulas did so well on Millionaires and Pleased To Meet You, and then by the audience as the orchestra, then choir and then band leave the stage still singing the chorus.
The second set starts with Tim playing with the orchestra, using the baton, which he jokes later that Joe never uses, before launching them into the William Tell Overture, which causes him to dance. At the end, as Joe comes on stage Tim gives him a present from James – a triangle, which was apparently the first musical instrument that Joe had bought for him.
She’s A Star sees Mark come back to accompany the orchestra. The crowd roar their appreciation once they work out what it is and there’s pockets of dancing around the arena. The song shows the way orchestration and Joe’s scores can breathe new life in old favourites that form the base elements of the normal James set. Larry has watched it from the back and runs down the stall aisle to get back on stage to dedicate it to his step-daughter.
Space has also been a revelation on this tour. Ignored since the comeback, it hangs on a slow build and then Tim taking centre stage with the passion in the vocals over the closing section of the song.
English Beefcake sees Tim go walkabout again, firstly down into the stalls and then up into the side stalls to look up and sing to the choir seats. He dances with a few members of the audience and poses for a few pictures. The inclusion of the song was in some doubt at the soundcheck, but Saul’s perseverance saw it included, and it sounds great with some bits added during the tour, such as Kim from the choir soloing the start of the “there’s nothing to say, I get in the way, unable to break obsession” section before the rest of the choir join in.
Riders jokingly gets dismissed as some shit that was written in the 1980s, which is clearly isn’t. It has some folkier elements which lead themselves well to the orchestration, but possesses an inherent drama and tension that the strings can be used to augment. The choir add menace to the backing vocals, particularly after the dramatic stop in the song.
The Lake single-handedly proves the value of looking at songs that wouldn’t ordinarily get near a James setlist choice. Remember it was not even chosen for the Laid album and ended up on the b-side of the single of the same name. Yet here it is, stealing the show with its control of pace, the subtle fluorishes of brass and strings that add so much to the song without overpowering it.
Fire So Close, introduced as a song written when they weren’t trying to be a folk song and one of the first songs they ever wrote, has to be restarted as Tim is thrown by a crowd member singing the next line at the start ahead of time, which he calls jokingly a “bad echo”. Tim seems to be trying to hold the note in the middle of the song longer every night. David and Larry continue their violin / guitar duel at the end of the song before Tim and the guys from the choir come back in.
Of Monsters And Heroes And Men is added to the set especially for those who bought Hey Ma, and Larry says this is the song he’s told is people’s favourite on the album. Whilst that’s debatable, it sounds fantastic with the additional orchestral instrumentation and some choir harmonies.
Say Something, like She’s A Star, feels the benefit of the reinvention by Joe. The addition of Harriet and Pippa from the choir in the verse and the rich vibrant strings transform the song. The London crowd need no invitation to sing it back and more and more people get to their feet.
As the song draws to a close, there’s a trumpet call from somewhere, but Andy has left the stage. The light swings up to the top circle seats where Andy is stood at the balcony playing. This then goes into a string section that mimics Jim’s bass on the original version of Hymn From A Village. The crowd and choir clap along and the brass section in the background help keep the pace and the chaos of the original.
Medieval is next, “more shit from the 80s”, and it starts with Larry on banjo. It turns into a romp with the choir at the front of the stage, the orchestra standing and joining in the chorus at the end. Tim introduces the orchestra and choir at the end of the song, saying they’re hiding at the back where good leaders should be.
The main set finishes with an exuberant, celebratory Sometimes. Finally, even most of those glued to their seats get up and join in the limited dancing they can do with the space between seats. It’s a triumphant conclusion to the main set, Tim leading a competition to sing the chorus between choir and audience, before Dave brings the orchestra back in for the finale.
The encore starts with Dream Thrum, which calms the mood down slightly before the triumphant romps through an adrenalin and strings charged Tomorrow, which has been perfectly paced for this setting, not losing the pace and dynamism of the original, but different enough to allow the strings to be heard above the band’s guitars. Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) has a similar impact and brings the scripted setlist to a conclusion with a hall full of people on their feet dancing and singing away.
They don’t go straight away though, thanking all their crew and then telling the crowd they’ll do one more, Larry getting carried away thinking James had been together 40 years, not 30. Larry tells the crowd that “you made us feel like this”. No big hits though, we get a fragile, delicate Top Of The World, that will damage the street cred of many of the tougher men in the crowd as it reduces them to tears. And then they’re really gone. The tour is over.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens next with this. There doesn’t appear to be a full show recording for a DVD release because the economics didn’t work, but some of them have been recorded as audio so we might get something seeing the light of day next year if the funds can be sourced to do so.
Whether this happens again will be interesting to see. Tim’s already tweeted about looking for orchestras and choirs in the US, Europe and South America, but it would take some doing to get it to work with language barriers, the time needed to prepare, the lower price of tickets and whether, in some places, they could sell the volume of tickets required to make it viable. Doing this again in the UK would be fantastic, if the setting and setlist are changing. This would be perfect for the Forestry Commission shows in intimate woodland settings across the UK in the summer. Another tour would need to have a different setlist to keep the energy and development in the music going over a period of time.
This tour has been absolutely incredible, a real journey for fans both in terms of the music coming from the stage and the setlist, but it’s intriguing to see how it will impact James going forward. It’s over 12 months since The Morning After so there has to be a look at new material, which was the stated aim of the reformation, plus there’s also the understandable desire to take James to new audiences – successes in South America and Eastern Europe this year open up possibilites there which are both exciting for the band as well as potentially a way of funding the next album.