Lose Control / Oh My Heart / Walk Like You / Frozen Britain / Seven / Curse Curse / Laid / What’s The World / I Wanna Go Home / All Good Boys / Quicken The Dead / Just Like Fred Astaire / Jam J / Dream Thrum / PS / All I’m Saying / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Moving On / Gone Baby Gone / Sound / Born Of Frustration / Interrogation / Sometimes
James concluded their touring for the year with a twenty-three song set in the cavernous surroundings of the MEO Arena in Lisbon. Urged on by a fanatical Portuguese crowd they made the hall feel intimate as they ran through eight tracks from their recent La Petite Mort album as well as classic singles and rarities from their back catalogue.
The La Petite Mort tour came to a conclusion in Lisbon, scene of James’ unforgettable performance at Rock In Rio a couple of years ago and this was their first visit since then. The 20,000 MEO Arena was an ambitious choice of venue, but they still pulled in a crowd in excess of what they get in most British cities, testament to their undying appeal here.
They start with Tim walking through the crowd with Andy singing Lose Control. Immediately you feel the enthusiasm and vigour of the Portuguese audience, the noise almost drowning out the music as they cheer and clap along. It’s a theme of the evening, as it was in Guimaraes the previous night, none of the incessant chatter from the wings that you get in Britain. The Portuguese don’t get bands coming here as if on a conveyor belt and they make sure they enjoy every minute of it when they do.
Oh My Heart is the first of two tracks from 2008’s reunion album Hey Ma, which has generally been ignored throughout this tour, and it’s an unusual choice for the first full band song of the evening as opposed to a more obvious crowd pleaser, but its soaring chorus where Tim Booth implores his heart to “come break me in two” is sung back by 10,000 voices with arms and camera phones raised in salute of one of Portugal’s more unlikely musical heroes.
The band are on good form tonight. Tim thanks the crowd with the only Portuguese word he claims to know before Saul Davies, once a resident of Porto, speaks to the crowd. Tim jokes that Saul’s probably talking dirty in Portuguese. It’s reassuring to note how well they are interacting up on stage this year as it’s that which drives their creativity and their instinctive ability to jam new ideas into songs and get themselves out of trouble when things start to go wrong technically.
Walk Like You and Frozen Britain are two of the high points of a series of peaks on this year’s La Petite Mort album. As the gig is being filmed we’re treated to eight of the ten songs from the record. The former clocks in at over eight minutes and feels like three songs rolled into once as it muses on the parent / child relationship whilst musically it’s a song that opens up so many possibilities and never quite sounds the same every night. Frozen Britain was the first focus track (single) from the album and has been (in my view wrongly) somewhat overshadowed by the big guns of Moving On and Curse Curse, but live that guitar hook is an invitation to dance and throw off the shackles. It’s a joyful exclamation of finding love after a series of let downs, there’s sexual overtones mixed in there as there are in many of the lyrics which the crowd around us sing back to him word for word.
Seven is the first of the songs from the album of the same name that broke them here and it turns the already feverish atmosphere up a notch further. Probably exhausted from all his exertions over the past three weeks, and he tells us later he’s getting by on sticky tape and ibuprofen, Tim goes down on to the barrier to sing and crouches down as the song reaches its “love can mean anything” conclusion. Tonight love means James, the adulation the band have here is unlike anything I’ve seen with them anywhere else.
Curse Curse and Laid are like a match made in heaven together in the set, their central themes, their joie-de-vivre making them blood relatives and they both induce the whole hall to bounce along to their rampant hedonism and slightly cheeky slightly disconcerting lyrics about sex and desire. Tim takes to the crowd, surfing over a sea of arms, many ignoring his request to put the camera phones down and live for the present and not save it for later. It takes a brave man in his fifties (he calls himself an “antique”) to put himself in that vulnerable position, but you see the joy on his face and the people he goes out and connects with and James make ultimate perfect sense in those moments, a group of outsiders coming together and celebrating that very fact.
They go right back to their early days for first single What’s The World, which sounds as fresh and vibrant thirty one years after its release as it did back then. It’s been adapted for the times, no more so than in Dave Baynton-Power’s opening drum salvo, and toughened up to allow it to fight with the better-known big hitters around it. The Portuguese crowd probably don’t know it, but they don’t care, they’re here to party and dance and they love it. Next up is I Wanna Go Home, not played in the UK, but tonight it’s a real show-stopper despite Tim’s claims to not remember the lyrics, building, brooding, hovering over the red-hot atmosphere until the key change where everything comes crashing in, guitars, violins, bass, keys and drums in a crescendo of noise that departs as suddenly as it arrives leaving Tim’s voice on its own for the conclusion “I am dying”.
All Good Boys has been the revelation of the tour, a discarded b-side the band admit to have forgotten about until recently (and guitarist Larry Gott, who wasn’t in the band when it was released, never having even heard it until tour rehearsals), but which fills rooms like this perfectly. The group vocals approach to the refrain is something James don’t do very often and Saul gets to sing a whole verse as a contrast to Tim. It’s powerful and testament to the quality and depth of their back catalogue that they can pull a gem like this out of the hat.
Quicken The Dead hasn’t seen much time on this tour, but it’s clearly one of Tim’s favourites and he explains that it’s a summation of the themes of La Petite Mort, that it’s important to live with death at your shoulder and to kiss those that you love. It’s a curious almost-waltz in parts, not what you’d expect from a James song, but it fits ideally into the set tonight.
Just Like Fred Astaire is one of James’ most popular and most requested songs and one that they’ve shied away from playing regularly until this tour. It’s a song that connects with their audience in a different way to most James songs – it’s not fighting self-doubt, relationship issues, death, it’s a pure unadultered declaration and love and not surprising that so many James fans have got married to this song. Lisbon is united in one big expression of its own love.
Tim jokes that the next song is one that no one gets married to unless they’re dark. The front rows gesticulate wildly to Tim that the second microphone he uses to sing this song (the same one that’s failed a couple of times on Greenpeace) isn’t working so we’re treated a wild instrumental section of Jam J, complete with a show-stopping light extravaganza. Tim tells us it’s not how you fuck up that matters, it’s how you handle it, before they kick it up again and Tim grabs the megaphone and goes with that and rescues the song and without the distortion it feels different to the other nights on the tour, an accident resulting in something unique. It’s not the type of thing you’d associate with James, but hidden away on Wah Wah there’s a few pieces of this industrialist jam-fuelled material that will shock and delight you if you’ve never investigated it (see also Honest Joe).
They take the mood back down for two tracks from Laid, James’ most popular album here. Dream Thrum showcases a different side to James, the almost heraldic nature of the lyrics being suppressed by understated guitar that makes it feel like a beautiful musical interlude in the midst of what’s going on around it. We’re further soothed by PS, the dark spite of the lyrics being enveloped by James’ mastery at these lower volumes, evidenced by both Jim Glennie’s spine-tingling bass and then when Saul takes centre stage with his violin. This is the James that makes people fall in love with them, the flip side to the big hits, the songs with a different gamut of musical excellence, improvisational genius and the desire to take risks and play these type of songs whilst other bands churn out album tracks that are mere imposters and weaker siblings of their singles. The Portuguese crowd respect this in a way that would shame some of the louder UK crowds this year. This continues for recent single All I’m Saying, a eulogy to his close friend Gabrielle Roth. As they play it, a guy stood near us closes his eyes, looks up and sings every word with his eyes closed.
Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) sees Tim back out in the crowd surfing, the song being another favourite in Portugal. Whilst it’s James theme tune, it translate to mean something to everyone in the hall, it’s a big two fingers to convention and fitting in and very apt for the traditional Portuguese approach to life where they’re proud to be different and proud of their culture and history. It’s why this band are so loved by the people here. They then kick into Moving On, Tim dedicating it to anyone who’s lost anyone, but something goes awry at the start of it so Saul leads the audience in a chant of the punchline of the previous song. Moving On feels like as much like a song of union and communion as Sit Down does – it’s a collective arm round everyone else’s shoulder and that’s why James are so special to so many people.
Tim handpicks people out of the audience as the rumbling bass intro of Gone Baby Gone echoes around the room, giving them strict instructions that they’re there to dance. He bravely suggests people should make a run to get on stage, and fortunately no one takes him up on it otherwise the stage might not have held the weight of people. The song itself has been one of the unexpected revelations of the tour. It’s been cut loose, given a new life of its own, it’s a bit ragged around the edges compared to the studio version, it gets extended out to allow Tim to dance with each of those pulled up on stage (as well as Larry joining in and spinning one of the dancers round) making it unpredictable, Tim plays with the lyrics, but it’s got everything that’s core to what makes James special.
After the night before’s events in Guimaraes when they invited thirty local Nicolinos drummers on stage for Sound, it’s a hard act to follow, but what they do is to simply follow their own commands in the song, taking up the invitation to leave themselves behind, do something out of character and show us something they’ve never done before. It’s another song that’s benefited from a rest because they’re now still playing around with it, keeping its freshness and vibrancy and never resting on their laurels. It’s accompanied by a light show that’s every bit as wild and improvised in parts as the music.
Born Of Frustration and Interrogation open the encore proceedings. The former is another song with particular resonance here, the song that started to open doors for them in 1992 when they first came to Lisbon, the latter evidence that with La Petite Mort that they haven’t lost the ability to create songs that transcend the usual verse / chorus routine of so many bands’ complete works. Live, the dramatic twists and turns of the song are multiplied as it builds to the judgement section and then is taken away from us as it soars to its instrumental conclusion.
Sometimes is really the only fitting end to the gig and the tour. It’s the song here that is most identified with them, the one that gets local pulses raising the most. As it drops down the crowd take over, Tim goes surfing again, putting not just himself but the song in the hands of the audience, but it’s a safe pair. The seated area are all on their feet, the band exchange elated glances as they take control back from the crowd and improvise the song to its conclusion. There’s nothing you can do to follow this, not even one of the many big hitters that are conspicuous by their absence tonight (Sit Down, Ring The Bells, Tomorrow, Come Home, Say Something, Waltzing Along et al). It feels like it’s never going to end until people lose their voices.
Whilst the tour has had celebratory moments like this throughout and seen some unusual revelations (All Good Boys, Go To The Bank, Greenpeace), it’s fitting that the songs from La Petite Mort have nested themselves in the setlist and steadfastly refused to budge and be muscled aside. The crowd reactions throughout, both in the UK and Portugal, showed that it’s cemented its place as a favourite already and they still have that same ability to connect and touch with their audience as they had when people first heard them.