The opening night of the Girl At The End Of The World tour
She’s A Star / Just Like Fred Astaire / Bitch / Catapult / Surfer’s Song / Move Down South / We’re Going To Miss You / Sometimes / Alvin / Waking / Girl At The End Of The World / Feet Of Clay / One Of The Three / Dear John / Tomorrow / Say Something / Sound / Attention / Sit Down / Moving On / Nothing But Love
The Slow Readers Club
The opening night of James’ UK tour in support of their number 2 album Girl At The End Of The World saw them take to the stage of Bristol’s resplendent Colston Hall to perform a set that consisted of all but one of the songs from that record, a couple of surprises and a few (but not all) of their best loved hits). Support came from Manchester’s The Slow Readers Club.
There’s a noticeable sense of nervousness as The Slow Readers Club take to the stage. Firstly, they’re not used to stages of this size and Kurt and Aaron look like they’re in different towns compared to the smaller stages they’re used to, but their songs were made for stages and halls like this and as soon as Fool For Your Philosophy strikes us then any concerns are dispelled. The test of any band stepping up to big gigs like these is the audience response and at the end of each song the applause gets louder, you see pockets of people dancing and they go down a storm. During the soundcheck Saul makes a flippant comment about Stereophonics supporting James and them ending up bigger and Jim then adds a list of other bands that did the same – The Slow Readers Club might not scale those heights, but this feels like a stepping stone to them playing venues approaching this size at some point in the not too distant future.
Their set is mostly taken from their second album Cavalcade. The five singles from it – Forever In Your Debt, Start Again, Don’t Mind, I Saw A Ghost and Plant The Seed – form the core of the set, but the other three songs from the album Fool For Your Philosophy, Days Like This Will Break Your Heart and the set-closing Know The Day Will Come could equally make the case for being singles too. Add to that Sirens and Feet On Fire from their self-titled debut and you have a set of ten songs that never dips in quality (and misses out live favourite One More Minute, a song that would stand out as an absolute highlight for most bands on their current circuit) and the growing crowd appreciate this. As they finish, a man shouts out from the back “who are you?” and when Aaron responds there’s a sustained round of applause that tells its own story. There’s no need for nerves as The Slow Readers Club belong here.
At the VIP soundcheck earlier in the day, James played three songs – We’re Going To Miss You, Alvin and Waking before engaging in a Q+A session with the assembled fans. Jim told us about learning Spanish and the pronunciation of words, Saul jokes that his one big regret was not becoming a jockey whilst Tim talked of a number of events that could have changed the course of the band’s history – taking the hard route instead of the easy one and probably avoiding bigger success but a band implosion. They’re very much at ease as the tour starts.
They open with Tim, Jim, Saul and Adrian with a black backdrop playing a gorgeous acoustic version of She’s A Star. In stripped back form, there’s an added intimacy to it that doesn’t get lost in the big room. People around us sing along, some stand and listen to what James do best – taking an old favourite and crowd pleaser and putting a fresh spin on it to keep it fresh. The sound is wonderful too, crystal clear so you can hear the subtleties in Adrian’s cello and Jim’s acoustic bass. The black backdrop is removed to reveal the rest of the band and they proceed to turn Just Like Fred Astaire into a racing gallop propelled along by acoustic guitars. It turns down the dreamy romanticism in the music of the recorded version into something more scampering, furious and on edge.
Buoyed by the success of Girl the set draws heavily from it, more so than any show since the early days of the Hey Ma tour with To My Surprise, the lead focus track from it, the only omission strangely. Bitch sees the stage drenched in interchanging red and green light as its extended instrumental opening cranks the volume up – right on the edge of distortion, but absolutely on the money. Girl is in the most part an album to be played loud and its opening salvo is no exception. Tim prowls the stage encouraging his band mates to do something different, to take the song off on a tangent. They, by their own admission, are still learning the songs to play live, but that’s what make these early shows on a tour so thrilling.
It wouldn’t be a James gig without something going wrong, so they have to start both Catapult and Surfer’s Song for a second time, but the James audience know that this is part and parcel of the band and celebrate it – why settle for a note perfect rendition of the album version of a song that you could listen to at home when you can have something that sounds different every time, always on the edge of breakdown, but a twist away from magic. It feels like these songs are getting a stronger reaction from the crowd live, at least tonight, than anything new has since they returned in 2007. Move Down South finishes with a crescendo of backing vocals, something that they have really worked on and is very noticeable tonight where they give the new songs a lift and adds new life to the older ones.
Speaking of older ones they then delve into the back catalogue and reveal We’re Going To Miss You and move Sometimes from its position at the end of the set to the middle to placate those who might not have picked up the new album. Tim describes We’re Going To Miss You as a spell of protection against an ex-girlfriend who was a witch (a real life one) and as five of them (including Swiss Ron hidden at the back of the stage) bring the song to a euphoric conclusion it feels just like that.
It’s back to the new album and Alvin. Tim told us at the soundcheck that it was named thus as it was written in the week Alvin Stardust died and because it has that 50s feel to it. Even with lyric sheets in hand (in the wrong order we think) he ends up improvising it with a random stream of French words. It should be a disaster, but the song’s irresistible joie-de-vivre means it’s everything but. It’s not traditional James, but it has that crazy vibe that the likes of Laid and Falling Down had. It segues into Waking which is transformed in the middle section by Andy’s trumpet – possibly the most evident sign tonight that James are already thinking of ways to twist these songs and give them new life. The title track Girl starts slowed down after Tim has told the story about both him and Jim having had car crashes since the album was recorded with Saul taking lead guitar duties but it soon explodes when it hits the chorus.
Feet Of Clay is the one moment on the record when they take their foot off the accelerator pedal and it’s a song of genuine beauty with a claustrophobic intimacy. These songs often lose out in the battle when played live (see Bitter Virtue and Semaphore) but this one feels different. The crowd pay it the reverence it is due, the backing vocals (again) and little flourishes of Saul’s violin give it a dreamy soft feel amongst all the muscular songs around it on the setlist. One Of The Three was last played in 1999 (and hardly ever when it was released on Laid) and continues the James tradition of going back into their archives and pulling a rabbit out of the hat. Like Feet Of Clay it’s an interesting counterpoint to what’s around it in the set, but the longer term fans are delighted by it. It feels like the band are still working out what the best way of playing Dear John live is as it’s the most difficult to recreate from the studio version, but that’s why watching multiple James gigs has a thrill that other bands don’t give.
There’s then a trio of some of their best-known and best-loved songs to placate those who haven’t heard the new record (and because, frankly, they’re running out of new ones). Tomorrow has the whole dance floor moving as an amorphous mass as it builds to its staccato drummed ending amidst a flurry of strobe lights. It’s one of the most powerful songs in James’ canon. For Say Something Tim comes down to the barrier and hops over it and makes his way through the crowd, skipping past a sea of mobile phones to find someone to dance with. He ends up on the barrier by the mixing desk and then in the seats at the back. The backing vocals are provided by the crowd on this one – it’s one of most obvious and straight songs James have ever done, but there’s absolutely no denying the power of it when 2,000 people are singing and living every word. One of the biggest cheers of the evening is however reserved for when Saul tells the crowd that Leicester have won the league. Sound makes a welcome return to the setlist and as it hits the breakdown you never quite know what to expect. Andy appears up on the balcony with a trumpet lit up in red, Tim loses himself in dance and Adrian puts his impressive mark on it as well.
They save the best for last though. Attention is probably the most powerful song on the album as it is, but live it pushes aside all the more obvious choices to end the main set and makes the spot its own. It starts brooding, slightly mysterious and threatening before hitting the drop down in the middle which seems to last an eternity with the stage going black other than for a few shards of white light, one of which falls on Tim as he looks like he’s shadow boxing. Dave’s drums bring it back up accompanied by a thousand pairs of hands clapping before it builds and then erupts into stunning life with lights exploding all around them. It looks set to stay at the end of the set.
The encore starts with Sit Down, but naturally they don’t just play it straight. It’s just Tim and Adrian, armed with a mandolin, making their way through the crowd from the back. Using the mandolin rather than an acoustic guitar gives it a slightly off-kilter feel but absolutely perfect for the song that’s about being an outsider and not conforming. Tim’s drowned out at times of course by the sheer weight of the audience singalong as he fights his way through.
With so much new material Moving On almost feels like an oldie now and it’s the only song from La Petite Mort (or indeed post 2007) that we get tonight. In many ways it prepared the ground for Girl’s success as it pricked people’s memories and means a lot to a lot of people in the room, but it does get me thinking just how powerful and in your face Girl is compared to its predecessor.
They finish with Nothing But Love, the song that has cemented that revival, or whatever you want to call it, it feels like a huge vital celebration, the sort of song that would have had them on Top Of The Pops and on Radio 1 back in the days when James had an in there. The opening crescendo of harmonies is irresistible to all but the coldest of hearted. There’s swathes of arms in the air moving from side to side. It’s the perfect way to end the gig.