Move Down South / To My Surprise / Catapult / Bitch / Alvin / Born Of Frustration / Sometimes / Surfer’s Song / Girl At The End Of The World / English Beefcake / PS / She’s A Star / What For / Dear John / Honest Joe / Sound / Attention / Say Something / Moving On / Nothing But Love / Come Home / Tomorrow
The Slow Readers Club
A sold-out Brixton Academy is one of the most thrilling places to experience a gig. Saturday night and James are in town with their new number 2 album Girl At The End Of The World and Manchester’s The Slow Readers Club in tow.
This is probably the biggest gig of The Slow Readers Club’s career to date and Brixton is already packed, helped by the buzz that’s been generated their performances on the tour to date and the unflinching support of their hosts. They take it all in their stride though, looking increasingly confident as the set progresses and the audience reaction to them grows with each and every song.
Their sound is tailor-made for rooms like this, the shackles that the small venue circuit in their native Manchester are being cast off with each and every show they play – songs like One More Minute, Forever In Your Debt and Know The Day Will Come are made for spaces like this. You look around and people who were talking at the start of the set are clapping along by the end and the roar that greets the end of their set tells its own story.
I Saw A Ghost, a dark tale of depression, is turned into some form of catharsis, a release of tension, but one that’s turned into a form of celebration by the pulsating drumbeat that drives it along. It’s not just the songs that are at home here now though – in just five shows Aaron has blossomed into the front man with the confidence to take on a crowd of this size, Kurt and Jim strut their stuff whilst the crystal clear sound allows us to recognise just how fine a drummer Dave is. Aaron keeps reminding us who they are – although the banner behind the stage should probably have “best unsigned band in Britain” in brackets after it. We know the music industry is fucked, but surely that can’t be the case for too much longer.
James make their way to the stage shortly before 9 and open with five songs from Girl as if to set the standard for the rest of the night. It’s a bold statement of intent on their biggest tour for years, but one that’s fully justified for a number of reasons. Firstly the album’s succeess, secondly they’re no heritage band despite the response their biggest hits get later on, but lastly and by far from leastly it’s probably their most in your face record ever, one that was made to be played live. It’s also one that’s fresh so we can hear them trying out new things each night; to try and add something extra to take the song to a new level. Move Down South is definitely a case in point, it feels like they’re still striving for that little bit more to take it to an even more exalted plain although when the vocals come together at the end and the music drops they’re there. To My Surprise needs no such lift though, the umbilical cord to its creation has been cut and it has a new life of its own, the chorus “were you just born an arsehole?” one of the more unlikely singalongs of the year, but one that makes perfect sense. As it reaches the breakdown, Andy’s trumpet takes over proceedings, white lights pulsate on and off behind them and the marker has been laid down.
With some sound problems on stage, Tim comes down amongst us for connection as they start Catapult. He’s already stood up tall on the barrier when the song comes to a grinding halt because he comes in at the wrong time because he can’t hear. It’s fixed quickly and they start again and he’s lifted on a sea of arms across us, never dropping a word despite being twisted and turned, almost dropped.
Bitch has been a highlight of the new songs so far on the tour and tonight is no exception. That brooding instrumental opening creates a menacing feel that’s amplified in the live environment and Tim shimmers those snake like hips of his across the stage as the song builds and he fixates on Saul. As it hits the punchline 5,000 people sing back “I’m just a bitch, bitch, bitch.” Alvin has been one of the revelations of the tour; its almost nonsense French lyrics actually make sense in the context of the song. Quite often, for a band so much associated with their front man (who some assume to be “James”), it’s about the music and not the words (see PS and Honest Joe later) and the playful abandon of this song reveals a different side to James not always recognised in their public persona.
Although we hear tales of it from others around the venue, there’s no restlessness around us at the amount of new material, but as that unmistakable opening call to arms of Born Of Frustration kicks in then Tim’s almost drowned out. For most of the song he’s up on the speaker stack surveying his disciples. Much has been said about the Sometimes singalong that has finished so many gigs over the past few years and the song has been moved forward in the set, but tonight as it finishes something magical happens. As the band change instruments and prepare to start the next song, the crowd come back in taking them completely off-guard so they go with the flow and come back in for another few minutes. At moments like this, you can’t fight that connection that gets made, a moment of spontaneity that only happens once in a while. Special mention also needs to be made of Adrian’s guitar solo in this song – as the tour progresses it’s noticeable how much more he’s coming to the fore.
It’s back to the Girl after the flirtation with the hit singles. Surfer’s Song has been one of the revelations of the album live and tonight it gets the same ecstatic reaction from the crowd as it has on previous nights. Of all the dance grooves on the album this is where it’s at its most strident and in your face as it feels like the song is about to career out of control as it accelerates, but it never does. It’s one of the songs that, even if you don’t know it, it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the adrenalin wave that it generates. Tim comes out into the crowd twice, surfing on a wave of arms, putting himself at real risk of being dropped at times, but the grin on his face tells its own story.
“This song is about dying in a car crash with joy. It’s our new single” is the deadpan introduction to the album’s title track which is starting to become one of the highlights of the set. Of all the songs on the album it’s probably the most direct in its lineage to the hit singles that made the band their name, an understated first verse with Adrian’s slide guitar simply beautiful before transcending into a soaring uplifting chorus.
It’s at this moment that the majority of bands touring a new album would cast it aside and head for the sanctuary of the greatest hits through to the end of the set. As James have already played nearly two-thirds of the album, they delve into the back catalogue and come out with English Beefcake and PS for the “old James fans.” Beefcake is a song that sort of disappeared in the messy ending of 2001, Pleased To Meet You fighting a losing battle with the greatest hits as James bade farewell, but it feels like a genuine fan favourite. The stage is drenched in yellow light for a jaw-dropping beautiful PS – Saul’s violin and Andy’s trumpet creating a beautiful longing duet that you don’t want to end before the lights dim and Dave’s soft drums provide the final moments.
Jim, Saul, Adrian and Tim huddle centre stage, acoustics and cello in hand and strike up She’s A Star. It takes a moment for the crowd to recognise it, but once they do Tim’s almost drowned out again. Despite, or because of, the stripped back arrangement, the song feels even more poignant than it usually does. What For retains its place as well after the overwhelming response it got the previous night. With only two of the seven in the band at the time the Factory and Sire material were in the band it’s understandably taken a bit of a backseat in more recent set selections, but there’s a lot of love in the fanbase for that period and Brixton becomes a sea of arms and there’s people around us singing the chorus even those that might not have known it before. Dear John suffers from a stuttering start as there’s big feedback issues on stage that startle Tim a couple of times.
As the unfamiliar to many opening bars to Honest Joe strike up, Tim jumps down to the barrier, but rather than joining us, he plucks out four of the front row to join the band on stage. It’s still a mesmerising cross between song and aural assault as the strobes light up the furthest recesses of the magnificent hall we’re stood in as Tim picks out one of the girls to dance eyeball to eyeball with it. It does miss Saul’s second megaphone tonight as the duel between him and Tim is one of the key parts of the song, but as it finishes with violin fighting with drums fighting with guitars fighting with whatever box of tricks Mark has at his disposal whilst Tim is lost in another world of his own, it’s still extraordinary even for a band that thrives on just that in their live shows.
Having been a little bullied by Honest Joe and Attention around it the night before Sound roars back with a vengeance tonight. The rolling floor of Brixton creates the perfect stage for the sound to ripple back across the audience to the back of the room whilst the band find new ways to improvise in the middle section as the lights play merry hell behind them and Andy makes his way along the barrier exalting us all to leave ourselves behind. Attention has a similarly potent feel to it, a song that builds, drops and then rises again, exploding into life, never quite sure of what’s going to happen next, that uncertainty, that anticipation of something special created in that moment.
The first encore starts with Say Something. Due to the size and layout of the venue there’s no opportunity for walking about in the crowd tonight realistically, so Tim’s confined to the stage and at points he’s at risk at getting drowned out again. This is always a crowd favourite and the band have to constantly seek ways of reinvigorating it to keep it fresh and in the set. Moving On, which we’ve felt has been a bit flat at the start of the tour, feels a lot more alive and clearly means a lot to the people around us as does Nothing But Love, a cursory glance back into the hall shows a sea of arms raised aloft singing along to the song that has probably made the most impact on the public conscience outside of the fan base than anything since they came back together.
They’re not done yet though. London, as with everything else in this country, gets more than the rest of the land and the second encore has both Come Home and Tomorrow. There’s a little bit of discussion about which one first as Saul has guitar issues and has a playful argument with Tim and Mark about who should start. Brixton is reduced to a heaving seething mass by these two established crowd favourites and they send the crowd off home happy and sated.