(review from Even The Stars)
James warmed up for their fifteen date UK tour with an intimate rehearsal set at Music Bank in Bermondsey in front of a specially invited group of twenty fans. As well as running through the whole of their recent number 2 album Girl At The End Of The World, they included some rarities in the set including one that hadn’t been played for seventeen years.
Music Bank is part of the Biscuit Factory complex just off the Jamaica Road in south east London. Dodging the Millwall fans pouring out of the nearby New Den, the competition winners congregated and were led up via a maze of staircases and production lifts to the top floor studio where the band had been beavering away for days rehearsing for the tour. The majority chose to sit on the cushions placed on the floor ready to witness a unique performance that most of the James fan-base would give up an arm and a leg for.
Before we start, Tim tells us that Adrian isn’t present today as his other band are playing a festival in Buxton (and there’s lots of terrible Buxton-related puns later on) so the performance becomes even more unique as a result. Saul appears dressed in what looks like a sailor’s hat and is immediately on good form. In a band full of creative sparks, his is often the most maverick one, his multi-instrumental talents allowing the band to take their songs to different places, approach them from oblique angles and reinvigorate them.
This up-close and personal experience gives us a real insight into the workings of the band. There’s jokes about who starts a song (“It’s Adrian” to laughter), playful interchanges between them, Tim asking his sister to go and get a manager to “print out Bitch”, checking the Arsenal score and at one point Tim opening and closing curtains to ensure the seated fans aren’t blinded the sun setting over the adjacent railway lines.
And the music? One of the problems with listening to a record at home is that you often, as a non-musician as I am, find it difficult to distinguish. The raw mix, very different to that we’ll experience in the halls of the land over the next three weeks, brings this into even starker focus. There’s parts of the new album that the natural assumption is that it’s guitar or keyboards when it’s Jim on bass or Andy on trumpet and it’s fascinating to see that. One of the reasons Girl is such a powerful record is that the bass has come to the forefront and live that comes across too, both in the sound, but also in the way Jim moves as he delivers the killer lines.
Alvin and Waking are played in front of a fan audience for the first time, the former’s French lyrics now don’t seem as strange as they did on first hearing and live it promises to be a crazy two and half minutes like the single it probably could have become whilst the latter sees Andy shoot blasts of trumpet through it that bring the song to vibrant passionate life. The band have talked about this being a powerful album to play live and that comes across even if these circumstances. All twelve songs are performed tonight and make the tour setlist.
Attention is a huge song, one of those journey songs that James do so well that come out of their songwriting process of jamming and piecing together sections of them into a song. When they’re played live, they take the listener on a trip through their creative minds. Move Down South is another example of this as are Surfer’s Song and Catapult. The songs feel like they’re going to implode at any moment under the sheer weight of their own momentum, but that’s the thrill that both audience and band get with James, that pushing of the envelope to its very limit; hurtling towards the abyss, taking the blind curve with nowhere to swerve, but coming out the other side unscathed and invigorated by the experience.
As ever with James there are surprises in the setlist. A four minute instrumental opening ushers in One Of The Three, a song they haven’t played since 1999 and one of our personal favourites (we named our James website after it). It’s absolutely beautiful, subtle, understated and a million miles away from the greatest hits and the new album. However, that’s one of the reasons James are so special; behind the hits everyone knows there’s so much more, moments of experimentation, others of vulnerability and fragility that big bands don’t deal in.
Just Like Fred Astaire and She’s A Star are performed in stripped-back form, Jim’s absolutely beautiful acoustic bass (even as a non-musician I want one) taking centre stage as the songs are recreated and reinvigorated before our eyes. We’re Going To Miss You makes a welcome return too, and as it comes to its ending as five voices join in unison, the whole song is uplifted and taken to a new level. James have always used backing vocals to great effect, but on this album and the live dates around them they’ve even surpassed themselves in this regard. Whether it be at the moment where Nothing But Love becomes a wondrous celebration of love or in the intricacies and delicate tenderness of Feet Of Clay, the impact is tangible.
It’s Nothing But Love that they finish on, appropriately given it’s the song that seems to have sparked their current resurgence. They then take time out to chat to fans, take pictures before heading off to Bristol for a production rehearsal the following night at Colston Hall before the tour starts. The fans disperse back to all corners of the UK (a sign of the dedication of James fans that people have dropped everything at a few hours’ notice to make it here – the competition was touted as for Londoners but I think there’s two pairs of winners maximum within 50 miles of it).
It’s rare for a band to drop their guard and invite people into their inner sanctum, willing to be seen warts and all as part of their preparations. It was an experience that the fans there will never forget.
James played Move Down South, Catapult, To My Surprise, Girl At The End Of The World, Alvin, Waking, Feet Of Clay, One Of The Three, Just Like Fred Astaire, She’s A Star, Dear John, We’re Going To Miss You, Surfer’s Song, Bitch, Attention, Moving On and Nothing But Love.