Bitch / To My Surprise / Curse Curse / Come Home / Jam J / Honest Joe / Dear John / Catapult / Surfer’s Song / Sound / Sometimes / Attention
She’s A Star / Dear John / Move Down South / Catapult / Ring The Bells / Come Home / Interrogation / PS / Just Like Fred Astaire / What For / Surfer’s Song / Bitch / Curse Curse / Sometimes / Sound / Attention / Moving On / Nothing But Love
James’ summer season of gigs moved on to Sheffield for the opening night of the Music In The Gardens festival set in the picturesque surroundings of the Botanical Gardens on the outskirts of the city. In pouring rain, James delighted the picnic-toting crowd with a set heavy on recent number 2 album Girl At The End Of The World but with enough, but not all, of their big hits for everyone. Support came from Sheffield’s next big thing The Sherlocks.
It’s seven o clock when The Sherlocks take to the stage, unfeasibly early, but as their set progresses the venue does start to fill up and people get themselves up off their picnic mats and deckchairs to take a closer look at one of the country’s hottest tipped bands. To be fair to them, they’re on a bit of a hiding to nothing tonight – the £45 ticket price probably deprives them of much of their local teenage fan base that has carried them to the point where they’ve booked a huge tour in September in venues like The Ritz in Manchester and the sound, toned down for the residential area around the gardens, doesn’t help their full-on adrenalin-charged tales of growing up, falling in and out of love that have won them so many fans.
What’s reassuring though is that they don’t let this get to them. Kiran has developed into a much more dominant and confident front man than when we last saw them – and they display that cocksure assurance in what they’re doing it that tells you a band is ready to make the next step. Despite the hand they’ve been dealt, they still deliver a set full of power and passion – songs like Last Night, Escapade, a new one called Candlelight, Heart Of Gold, Live For The Moment and the closing Chasing Shadows suggest that they might emerge from the shadows of the city’s more famous sons and take the undoubted adulation they have here to the rest of the country.
It’s already started raining by the time James take to the stage and whilst we’ve been drowned at shows before (Porto 2014, Hardwick 2015), it’s not quite at those sort of levels so is more of an irritant than a trigger to let go and lose yourself in the ensuing carnage. The first few songs are marred by the sound as well; the venue set up is ill-equipped for a band of James’ scale and size if we’re being honest, but the FOH sound man more than earns his corn because after three songs he’s made the best of the cards he’s been dealt with and we can hear the separation between instruments and a great mix and disaster is averted.
They open with She’s A Star performed semi-acoustically with Adrian on cello and Tim dedicates to Nicola Sturgeon as the only politician who knows what she’s doing. Dear John bears the brunt of the aforementioned sound problems but still comes out the other side triumphant just about. Move Down South turns the heat up a little, even if lyrically the tales of deserts being drilled out in the drought possibly not quite connecting with a Sheffield audience with rain running down their foreheads. There’s no concession to the possibility that this might be more your greatest hits festival type crowd as they then go into Catapult and Tim makes his first venture down to the barrier despite the rain that has the band set back on the stage to avoid electrocution.
The crowd really comes alive as they strike up into Ring The Bells and Come Home; the rain becoming an irrelevance as people let loose and the band look as if they’re being fuelled on by the reaction they’re getting. Interrogation is a dark, claustrophobic song, but one that feels quite fitting in these very strange times in which we’re living, and as the rain starts to hit home harder as the band reach an improvised section that lifts the song to its conclusion, we’re all uplifted by the spontaneity and the whirlpool of energy they’re creating. James 2016 feels fresher, more invigorated than they have done for a long time and even the austerity of the sound set-up can’t disguise that as the sound man is performing miracles by this point.
Tim stops to tell us about the safety pin campaign to show support for fellow Europeans and those from the rest of our planet that are being subjected to attack from the uneducated fascists that are emboldened by the country’s ridiculous referendum vote to express their hatred and bigotry that angers any right-minded person (our words not his). Anyone who doesn’t get this political and socially conscientious side to James, which has always been there, doesn’t get the band.
PS is nothing to do with that, as Tim deadpans, but it is possibly the highlight of the evening. It’s far from an obvious (or even sensible) choice for this type of event, but rather than get lost in the open air, it feels like Saul’s violin and Adrian’s slide bounce off the trees and envelop us with their beauty. Things are kept low-key with two more semi-acoustic songs; Fred’s transformation from soaring love-struck ballad into an acoustic bass and guitar led folk beast is complete whilst What For and it’s edgy, always on the edge of breakdown delivery is a real genuine throwback to a time when the band were on the cusp, riding a wave that the music press were ignoring as they are now.
It’s then back to the Girl At The End Of The World for two more songs. Surfer’s Song, which Tim tells us is about watching the surf and gay marriage, has been the real revelation from the album when played live. It encapsulates the raw vigorous energy of the record in its four minutes perhaps more than anything else on it. Tim comes down to the barrier and goes surfing and there’s a worrying moment where it looks like he’s thrown up in the air and left to fall, but he manages to just about recover and make his way back on a sea of arms and held up mobile phones. That rumbling belligerent opening section to Bitch is made for more powerful set ups than this one, but having retired further back where the sound is less impacted, it also has that vitality that you wouldn’t expect from a band of this vintage. Curse Curse has a similar impact.
Sometimes, always appropriate when you’ve got rain dripping off your forehead into your eyes, is an absolute triumph. It feels like it might just be the one song that they could never drop from their set such is the communion it ignites in the crowd singing that line “sometimes when I look in your eyes, I can see your soul.” It goes into Sound which again battles the odds and wins, Andy appearing down on the barrier with bright red trumpet urging the masses on to lose themselves further in the music, not that any invitation is needed.
Attention completes the main set. Tim tells us it might be a new song, but “it’s a fucking good one” and it is indeed. It has to be to keep its position at the end of the set and tonight, like at so many of the shows, the audience get it from the slow build to the dramatic dropdown and the song slowly building back in aided by a thousand pair of clapping hands. It might not quite get the impact of the lights as it does indoors, but it’s still potent, powerful and final confirmation that they’re still a force to be reckoned with.
Never content with just doing the obvious and eschewing so many easy choices (Sit Down, Laid, Say Something, Tomorrow etc etc), the encore is very much about the here and now. Moving On is particularly poignant for Tim as his mother, whose death the song is about, spent her final days not too far from here whilst Nothing But Love seems to have inspired a new “dance”, the swaying from side to side, arms around the person next to you in a sign of coming together in celebration is adopted at least where we’re stood. It’s the final proof that this band, whatever grouping they might get lumped into by the laziness of the music press, is one of the here and now not some heady bygone era.
The beaming smiles on the drenched crowd as they stream out of the park rain rolling down their cheeks tells its own story – a joyful uplifting night despite the weather and despite the sound which could have blighted the evening had it not been for the unsung heroes that make evenings like this seem like they run like clockwork.
James played She’s A Star, Dear John, Move Down South, Catapult, Ring The Bells, Come Home, Interrogation, PS, Just Like Fred Astaire, What For, Surfer’s Song, Bitch, Sometimes, Sound, Attention, Moving On and Nothing But Love.
Walk Like You / To My Surprise / Catapult / Waking / Move Down South / Sit Down / Sometimes / PS / Dear John / She’s A Star / Just Like Fred Astaire / Bitch / Surfer’s Song / Curse Curse / Tomorrow / Come Home / Attention / Out To Get You / Moving On / Nothing But Love / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)
Dream Thrum / To My Surprise / Move Down South / Catapult / Moving On / Sometimes / PS / Dear John / Feet Of Clay / She’s A Star / Just Like Fred Astaire / Bitch / Surfer’s Song / Tomorrow / Sound / Attention / Out To Get You / Nothing But Love / Come Home
James hadn’t played in Amsterdam since 1992 on a balmy night across town at the Paradiso, but returned as part of a trio of European dates that also took in Paris and Berlin. In a 500-capacity venue where the band and crowd were almost eyeball to eyeball, James mixed songs from their number 2 album Girl At The End Of The World with some of their biggest hits and favourites from their back catalogue on a truly special night.
Seeing your favourite band in a tiny European venue is a really special experience. Firstly, like James tonight, they are performing in a venue far smaller than you’d see them in at home, there’s no space or budget for the big lighting show, the expansive sound set up. It’s raw, naked and vulnerable, but James thrive in that environment and the looks on their faces tells us that they’re having one of those nights where everything flows and feels perfect.
The Oude Zaal of the Melkweg is a wonderful venue, it holds around 500 in a circular shape with a balcony and has a fabulous sound set-up, imperative for a band of eight that James are live these days, but there are moments of delicious subtlety that are so perfectly amplified and separated that the impact of it brings grown men and women to tears.
They open with Dream Thrum from Laid and that sound quality is immediately obvious, the fragility of the arrangements crystal clear and the band, as they were for much of the recent UK tour, appear to have found that intuitive connection that makes some tours stand out even more from the crowd. From there they go into three songs from Girl – the lead track To My Surprise, Move Down South and Catapult – that channel the power of the record and then release it with cyclonic impact. They’re immediate and they get the audience moving, even if they’re not so familiar with them (the biggest record shop in town didn’t have the new album when we looked earlier in the day) to the point that we don’t hear a single moan about the non-inclusion of Sit Down, Laid, Ring The Bells and a plethora of their other best-known songs.
Moving On, a tale about coming to terms with the death of loved ones, feels particularly poignant in an environment as raw and naked as this one. Sometimes has a magnificent uplifting feel to it and five hundred voices, a mixture of Dutch, British, German and a few from further afield, join in the chorus that feels like some form of catharsis and release. Adrian deserves special mention for making the guitar solo very much his own; true to the original, but very much his own man and an integral part of the live sound.
PS comes from the same album, but is a completely different beast – a spitting, vitriolic vocal delivered with venom and finishing with Tim standing agog, as we do, then starting to dance at the improvised interaction between Saul’s violin and Andy’s trumpet that entwine around each other. When the band surprise each other like this, then you know you’re witnessing something extraordinary. Dear John and Feet Of Clay follow and give further demonstration, not that any is needed tonight, that this band aren’t just capable of the big hitters that they’re best known for. Mark’s keyboards and Andy whistling through his trumpet provide the canvas for the revelations of the former, whilst the latter packs a punch that belies its recorded version without ever compromising its tenderness.
She’s A Star and Just Like Fred Astaire form the semi-acoustic section with Adrian on cello and Jim on that magnificent acoustic bass he’s brought out this year. Once again the songs benefit from the separation in the sound that accentuates each and every instrument. As Fred picks up pace in this unfamiliar arrangement, Tim loses himself completely in the music as do we and that continues, albeit at a wildly different pace as they return to Girl for Bitch and Surfer’s Song.
These two songs are some of the boldest examples of the James 2016 sound. The three minute introduction with its throbbing thrilling insistent bass line turns up the temperature in the room a notch higher, whilst the latter has been a revelation at the live shows, audiences being simply bowled over by the song accelerating just about in control but thrillingly on the edge of potential breakdown.
It’s testament to them that Tomorrow and Sound, monoliths of many a James set, don’t overpower or overwhelm them. Recollections by this point are slightly hazy as everyone is so lost in the music, in a world where everything else is shut out for ninety magical minutes. As well as a lot of love in the room for the band, the audience are as one, a joyful celebration of the band returning after so long away or seeing them perform in such intimate surroundings. Andy joins us in the centre of the floor mid way through Sound as we create a circle around him.
They finish with Attention, the real show-stopper on the recent UK tour. As it reaches the breakdown where the two elements of the song come together and then go their separate ways, the audience come in and almost beat-perfect raise it with hand clapping at a volume that belies their numbers until the song explodes back into life and light spectacularly.
Out To Get You opens up the encore, so crisp and sharp you think it might snap in two if pressed, but every note feels like a heart string is being plucked as well as the guitar string. Mark has made his way to the front of the stage and the interaction between him and Saul has Tim mesmerised as it does us – he lets himself go and loses himself in the music as many of those around us do too. Nothing But Love sees a wonderfully poignant moment where large sections of the crowd wrap arms around each other’s shoulders and sway, dance and sing along. It encapsulates the magic and the feeling of unity that’s been created (there’s a few references to the upcoming referendum) by the eight of them up on stage.
There’s no way we’re going to let them leave it at that and they have no intention of going anywhere. Tim suggests Come Home and very soon joins us in the crowd, falling on top of us and being lifted around the room, the crowd managing to both dance and move Tim around without dropping him although he does look a mix of shaken and exhilarated when he gets back to the stage.
Amsterdam was a wonderful experience. The band were as good as I’ve seen them for a very long time, thriving on the intense intimate environment they are performing in, feeding off the energy of a crowd that’s there to enjoy themselves rather than drink themselves into incoherence. The set list is a challenging one that refuses to take the easy route of rolling out a series of hits because they haven’t been to the Netherlands for so long. Amongst us national barriers are irrelevant, everyone is united by a common love of music, the adrenalin rush of a loud guitar and crashing propulsive drums, the contemplative beauty of a violin solo and the impact one man’s words can have on so many.
I’d recommend to anyone going to Europe to watch their favourite band play in these types of venues where there is none of the protection that bigger stages and huge production provide a protection and distance of sorts. The environment, the fans, the connection between them and the band made this one of the very best James gigs I’ve ever been to and looking around at the beaming faces both on stage and in the crowd, I doubt I was the only one feeling that.
Dream Thrum / Catapult / To My Surprise / Bitch / Moving On / Alvin / Waking / Surfer’s Song / She’s A Star / Just Like Fred Astaire / Out To Get You / Interrogation / Dear John / Sound / Sometimes / Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) / Attention / PS / Come Home / Nothing But Love