James opened their La Petite Mort tour with a sold out show at Oxford's O2 Academy - an intimate venue compared to some of the arenas on the tour, but they still thrilled with songs from their latest album as well as a mix of greatest hits and a few rarities plucked from their enormous catalogue of songs.
This Oxford date has been tagged onto the front of the tour as it was initially a warm-up for July’s Castlefield show that got cancelled because of Tim having a throat infection. As a result, it’s by far the smallest venue on the tour and that applies to the stage. As a result Saul is moved to the back to the stage to accommodate everyone whilst allowing Tim to dance and this becomes a running joke throughout the set, Tim quipping that he’s heading for the exit and hoping it’s not a sign at one point.
They open with two songs from La Petite Mort – Walk Like You and Quicken The Dead - and what’s immediate, as it has been throughout the series of summer dates, is that these songs don’t need to make excuses for themselves of being new to justify their place in their set. There’s few songs like Walk Like You in James’ canon – you have to think Johnny Yen and Sound – that give them free reign to improvise so much without the song falling apart or sounding unnatural. It’s nine minutes long yet never feels like it outstays its welcome. Quicken The Dead is three minutes of beautiful triple-time quasi-waltz, not the most immediate live song on the record, but one that takes off its glasses, lets its hair down and turns into something quintessentially beautiful.
It’s a theme that runs through the set that the new material never needs to shirk in the exalted company of its more successful and popular brethren. Interrogation, as Saul points out in the programme, is a song that makes your hairs stand up on the back of your neck, no more so when they go for the extended version of it as it appears on the record. Gone Baby Gone, once they get past a false start, has been turned into a joyful, playful romp-stomp with Tim swooping from the “love love love” to the “blah blah blah” middle eight section with the most wicked mischievous grin on his face.
The two singles Curse Curse and Moving On have really captured the imagination of the James fan-base in the way that songs like Crazy and Look Away from the mini-albums and Whiteboy and Waterfall from Hey Ma, great songs that they are – never really did. We don’t even get the next single All I’m Saying, out next Monday, but then that’s just typical James isn’t it?
For the die-hards, there’s three special moments where James delve into the darkest nooks and crannies of their back catalogue. Millionaires-era b-side All Good Boys is transformed spectacularly and ends in a crescendo of five voices in unison, the music dropped, singing “the river, the river runs through, from father to son to tender the bruise” Saul describes it as “fucking brilliant” and that it doesn’t matter that it’s a b-side. You do wonder what thought process made it one rather than some of the tracks off the second half of that album though. Vervaceous swoops, soars, drops and soars – it’s almost not a song rather a piece of music crafted from a jam, a piece of art rather than the more traditional song structures of their better known work. Greenpeace is marred by Tim’s second microphone not working, but it hardly matters as it turns into a cacophony of noise, flashing lights and menace.
It’s not all about the new album and obscurities from the back catalogue though. Even though Tim tells a persistent heckler that this is the “No Sit Down tour because it needs a rest” there’s more than enough for those only acquainted with the Greatest Hits. Laid, set free in the first half of the set, is as rampantly daft and almost frivolous as ever, a whole bundle of fun as is Sometimes as Tim marvels at the crowd singing along with Andy. There’s no stopping the music to prompt the crowd, just everyone carried away in the emotion of the song.
Tim exits the stage and walks on the bars and merch desk at the side of the venue for most of Come Home before swan-diving into the crowd as the band take the song off down improvised roads to its conclusion. Hymn From A Village sounds like a reborn song – the energy, taut chaos belying its thirty-two years. Out To Get You, with an elongated beautiful violin opening that has Tim holding back from starting the song to marvel at Saul’s work, does nothing to dampen the celebratory mood. Born Of Frustration threatens to blow the building apart such is its ferociousness whilst we’re sent home floating on the sea of love and joy that is Just Like Fred Astaire.
What comes across more than anything tonight is just how well the band are connecting on stage, a telepathic feeling of understanding that allows them to bounce off each other, feed each other and it drives them off to squeeze new leases of life out of songs they’ve played hundreds of times before as well as reinvent songs they’ve just written. And this is just the start of the tour.
James played Walk Like You, Quicken The Dead, Seven, All Good Boys, Interrogation, Hymn From A Village, Curse Curse, Laid, Vervaceous, Greenpeace, Ring The Bells, Gone Baby Gone, Come Home, Sometimes, Moving On, Out To Get You, Born Of Frustration, Just Like Fred Astaire
James' official website can be found here, where you can find details of their November arena tour. They are on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the band - Tim, Larry, Andy and Dave - are also on Twitter.