Lose Control / Waltzing Along / How Was It For You? / Sound / Interrogation / Five-O / Of Monsters And Heroes And Men / Fire So Close / Just Like Fred Astaire / We’re Going To Miss You / She’s A Star / I Wanna Go Home / Stutter / English Beefcake / Moving On / Johnny Yen / Sit Down / Come Home / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Sometimes / Laid
Echo And The Bunnymen
James completed a sold-out ten date tour of the UK with a show at Manchester’s MEN Arena last night. We were there to witness a triumphant homecoming of a band looking backwards to move on with old favourites and future classics.
James are a band that don’t play by traditional rules. Dismissed ridiculously in some quarters as one-hit wonders (nineteen top forty singles), they can still achieve top 10 albums (Hey Ma) that elude most of what the industry horribly describe as “heritage” bands without any substantial record company support and play to 15,000 crowds in their hometown and sell out a tour in the rest of the UK.
They could take the easy route tonight and just play hit after hit and Manchester on a Friday night would melt in their arms. But, as when they toyed with the precipice of mega-stardom when they were the biggest band in the UK for twelve short months between the success of Sit Down and their 30,000 capacity live on Radio One show at Alton Towers in 1991/2, tonight they take the long winding route of musical integrity, improvisation, songs so new that Tim needed lyric sheets for one that makes them simply the most thrilling and unpredictable live band in the country.
Of the 21 songs they played, 12 were hit singles, enough for the casual fan and with some inspirational sing-alongs in there, but there’s two new songs, Interrogation and Moving On, which with familiarity will rank alongside those hits when they get released in 2014, the as yet unreleased in studio form Stutter which dates back to 1981, Fire So Close from their debut EP, two songs from Hey Ma (Of Monsters And Heroes And Men and I Wanna Go Home) which show that they can still write music that moves the body and the soul and other choice album tracks from their phenomenal back catalogue. Songs like Ring The Bells, Tomorrow and Say Something, which would form a career highpoint for the majority of the hip-and-trendy indie-by-numbers pedalled by the NME aren’t needed.
Tim Booth is the obvious star in the band and the focus of most of the adulation of the crowd. His boundless energy, shamanic trance-like dancing, starting Lose Control up in the level one seats, his engagement with the audience to the point tonight of walking on the shoulders of the front few rows during Just Like Fred Astaire, his continued look of genuine amazement at the response from the audience and his voice, which like fine wine has matured with age allowing him to hold notes longer than some bands’ songs, all make him one of the most unique, unmissable frontmen in the business.
James always have, and always will be, about more than Tim though. Larry Gott’s guitar work, so missed during his absence in the late 90s, simply takes the breath away as he improvises sections of songs, even those from the period when he was absent. Saul Davies, on violin and guitar, is the agitator in the band, that unpredictable spark that drives the band and his violin playing, in particular, takes songs like Laid’s Five-O into places you wouldn’t go at a rock concert. He laughs and jokes with Tim and the audience throughout. Andy Diagram prowls the stage with his trumpet adding flourishes and breathing new life into songs from across the back catalogue. The whole thing is underpinned, without playing down their contributions, by Jim Glennie on bass, Dave Baynton-Power on drums and Mark Hunter on keyboards, all essential parts of creating that framework for the others to paint on.
There’s points in the set where you see the chemistry that makes them so exciting on stage. Tim playfully prods Larry at one point when he’s in an improvised section of a song, at various points two, three or four of the band will come together, look each other direct in the eyes and drive each other on to do something out of character, something different which will make that version of that particular song different tonight from any other night. Manchester loves the hits obviously. Sit Down ends up as a ten-minute communal sing-along when the band stop playing – the Comic Relief sketch that used it appears to have convinced them that it’s not a song to be ashamed of but to love, celebrate and cherish. And that’s exactly what it is. There’s not a more engaging group call to arms and celebration of togetherness in the annals of the musical history of this great city
Sometimes has a crowd versus choir sing-off, Come Home has 15,000 people hollering Tim’s tale of self-loathing back at him as a form of catharsis and Laid starts off with the song played slowed right down with Tim being drowned out before descending into a riot with stage invasions including Peter Kay with a guitar as they start again hell for leather.
James are a one-off. Bands don’t sound like them or get compared to them, basically because they’re incomparable. Criminally, they’ve never had that critical acclaim reserved for the likes of many of their peers, because they refuse to play by those traditional rules that the industry dictates and because, in a world where fame and money is king, they’re all about the music and that connection it makes between band and audience. The only way they can be sure of challenging their audience is by challenging themselves. This wasn’t a gig, this was a life experience to a soundtrack of love and fear and hate and tears.