Born Of Frustration / Seven / Waterfall / Waltzing Along / Sound / Johnny Yen / Medieval / Stutter / Out To Get You / Oh My Heart / Ring The Bells / Jam J / Come Home / Just Like Fred Astaire / Sometimes / Tomorrow / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Sit Down / Laid
review by Tim Allan
The first thing that strikes you about Kendal Calling is the size of the place. It’s tiny. For those of us used to losing half a day trekking from stage to stage at the bigger festivals, this is no bad thing. Even so, it’s still disconcerting that with a good lob of a cricket ball, a band on one stage could quite conceivably knock out a competing act on another.
But Kendal deserves its positive reviews. The number of people vs. the size of the site is perfect (V, please take note), the camping is segregated into ‘party’ and ‘quiet’, and there’s a pleasing absence of corporate slogans being forced in front of your eyeballs every two seconds.
So, 3 days in, and despite having been up to my ankles in rivers of piss for most of that time, my spirits are still high. They’re made even higher when an early stroll to shake off the previous night’s excesses takes me past the main stage only to see six members of James running through their sound check. They blast through Jam J, PS and Waterfall, all Booth-less, which actually draws your attention to the intricacies of the music more than usual. I’m in hungover heaven, if such a thing is possible, and at one point I even consider shouting up to the stage to see if they need anyone to check the vocal levels. I know all the words, after all. But then I transport myself back to reality and just enjoy the experience.
Fast forward nine hours and the full James quota take to the stage and deliver a solid left-right combination of Born of Frustration and Seven, the former sounding crisp and sharp and the latter positioned perfectly between the pomp (let’s face it) of the album version and the toned down sound of the single. The levels are fantastic and the technical gremlins from the previous night thankfully all seem to have been banished. It’s a wonderful start and the crowd are on side instantly.
Next comes Waterfall, a would-be single in a different era that soon has the crowd chanting back the refrain like an old favourite. I struggle with Waterfall a bit…… there’s something a little too ‘grown-up’ about it, but tonight it’s worthy of its place. Saul’s drumming and the extra pace they give it in the live arena both lift it above the more sedate version that appears on Hey Ma.
Back to the hits proper with Waltzing Along, a heavier version than I remember, and a clear festival favourite, presumably thanks to the big selling Best Of given that as a single it didn’t do much in the charts. Sound appears far earlier than I was expecting and passes me by entirely, not because of its delivery, but because I spent the entire song with someone on my shoulders, ears muffled by legs.
Bereft of ear warmers, I can pay full attention to Medieval. It sounds aggressive but tight, the marching rhythm keeping the crowd engaged during what is understandably a lesser known number. It would be so easy for James not to do things like this, to opt instead for start-to-finish hits, but I would have parted company with them long ago if that was their ethos. It’s moments like this that fuel the addiction.
Johnny Yen serves as a perfect reminder of the remarkable scope that they have. The majority of the crowd won’t realise that the middle section is improvised and that it could collapse or disintegrate at any point. It’s a 7-way jam, and as anyone who’s been in a band will know, it takes supreme skill and shared understanding for that not to sound appalling. Tim name-checks Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison, singing the middle section rather than speaking it, before a frantic outro that sees him commanding the band to ‘put him out of his misery’ three times before they finally oblige.
Stutter is a tour de force that is as visually captivating as it is musically. Ending the song with three drummers and Tim on keys smacks slightly of 70s prog rock, but why not. It leads immediately into Out to Get You, the juxtaposition of James captured in the space of a few seconds. It’s as near as they get to a glow stick song but thankfully there doesn’t seem to be any Coldplay fans in attendance. The outro gets the full treatment, speeding up to a crescendo that reminds just how far this song has come since its first appearance as a Lose Control b-side.
Oh My Heart has never been a personal favourite, but it’s delivered with an energy that keeps the momentum going. It flows into Ring the Bells, which for this writer is the finest live song that James currently have in their cannon. It’s all about Larry’s guitar work at the end of the song, first the whammy bar and then the string-bending solo. I cheer like I’ve just won the lottery.
Jam J is next and sounds industrial and distorted, another reminder of the band’s diversity. It’s followed by Come Home, which is as near as we get to a low point. It’s seems to brood rather than really get going, a little one paced and still sounding very much like the 1998 Best Of tour version. Unusually for James, it seems to do less in a live setting than the recorded version, rather than more. Maybe I’m just being picky.
The next four minutes are one of the musical highlights of my life. Fred Astaire is delivered acoustically and with such sincerity and passion that I’m just blown away, almost numb. The girl next to me cries helplessly – she’s never heard the song before but she’s just split up with her boyfriend and it’s too much. I cry too. My wife walked down the aisle to this song.
Stiff upper lip restored, we’re treated to a trio of big hitters – Sometimes (with Tim in crowd and singalong – orchestrated, yes, but hey, this is a festival headline slot), Tomorrow and Getting Away With It. A nod to the entirely pointless musical tradition of the encore and they’re back for Sit Down, stripped back at first and then into the full band version for an extended chorus. Tim says we’ve “earned it” and for once, I’m delighted it’s in the set. It would have been cruel on this crowd to have left it out.
A celebratory romp through Laid is their parting shot, received almost as fervently as Sit Down. A theatrical bow and that’s that, a wonderful performance from a band who tonight have played the festival headliner role perfectly without being a jukebox of Best Of hits. Yes, there were elements of rock ‘n’ roll cliché, but somehow they James-ified it and made it acceptable.
I consider crying again, but realise that I’m smiling too widely to even come close.
review by Kathryn Gardner
Kendal Calling, a relatively new but fast growing festival situated in the beautiful grounds of Lowther Deer Park. Seemingly popular with a younger crowd, I had been warned by a friend we would probably be some of the oldest people at the festival. This wasn’t the case.
The band came on just after 9pm and you could tell immediately this was going to be a good crowd. Tim himself had tweeted earlier that the atmosphere had him ‘psyched up’ and the audience didn’t disappoint. Opening with Born of Frustration, the sound is excellent and the screen at the back of the stage projected images of an already bouncing crowd. Seven, Waterfall, Waltzing Along and Sound follow. Johnny Yen is simply stunning, the lighting, the back projection. Everything.
Medieval begins with Andy’s superb trumpet intro; I’m lost again in the beauty of this song. The crowd, not all familiar with the song, take it to their heart and even the 17 year James’ ‘virgin’ next to me, (her words not mine) is now chanting back, ‘We are sound, we are sound.’ Stutter follows with Tim taking over from Mark on the keyboards.
Out to Get You and Oh My Heart bring the tempo back down slightly, but not the mood of the crowd; they love it. Saul’s violin solo at the end is simply stunning, Tim watches on looking as mesmerised as we are. Ring the Bells sees the crowd throbbing again and someone in the audience sets off a flair. Jam J and Come Home cause a near tidal surge from the audience. The atmosphere is electric. A beautiful and acoustic version of Fred Astaire is followed by Sometimes. Tim goes into the crowd, balancing on the barrier. He lets go and the back projection on the stage shows Tim fall into the audience; they support him, and thankfully, help him back onto the barrier.
Tomorrow and Getting Away with It finish the set and James leave the stage. The crowd chant for more and are not disappointed. James return and Tim comments that perhaps you thought you weren’t going to get this. The band come to the front of the stage and perform a simple, melodic and quite frankly, beautiful rendition of Sit Down. Laid finishes the set and the audience are once again a throbbing mass of bodies. There’s a mini stage invasion from friends and family of the band watching from the sidelines. It’s a great end to a great set.
Leaving the venue my friend comments that tonight’s gig was something like a religious experience leaving everyone, band and audience elated. She was right.