It’s been a long held wish of both band and fans alike for James to play Delamere Forest, scene of legendary shows from the likes of Elbow, I Am Kloot and Doves and just an hour away from their hometown of Manchester. The shows are put on by the Forestry Commision each year over the first weekend of July and the “indie” night is seen as a pilgrimage for the music fans of the North West.
It’s a picturesque setting in the middle of the forest on a hillside on which people pitch folded chairs and roll out picnic sheets. The weather, which was threatening to set in persistent rain earlier in the day delaying the band’s sound check as the front of the stage was dried out, mercifully cleared as the band came on and the threatened storms stayed away.
The band come on fashionably late and strike into the opening bars of Sound. It’s an interesting choice of opener as its more familiar position is towards the end of the set where it can be stretched and improvised to over ten minutes. The crowd are unfazed however as several thousand pairs of arms are raised aloft and people sing along. Tim looks like a man on a mission, prowling the stage, encouraging the others and finishing the song with his back to the audience on the drum riser. Ring The Bells, which Tim told us in the sound check was his favourite song at the moment, is next and keeps the energy levels high.
This isn’t going to be a case of rolling out a set full of hits though, even if that would be the easy option on a night like this. In fact, the one thing that is guaranteed is that is what they won’t do. We get a selection of songs from La Petite Mort and it’s welcoming to see that a large chunk of the audience know Curse Curse, Gone Baby Gone and All I’m Saying. The former sees Tim go crowdsurfing on a sea of arms, whilst Gone Baby Gone feels on the edge of breaking down at points given its raw rumbustious character, but they hold it together.
All Good Boys punctuates the three and takes the atmosphere down a little as a lot of people around us clearly don’t know their Millionaires b-sides and despite the subtlety and beauty of their revised arrangements it does get a little lost in the open air. All I’m Saying is a song in the true James tradition, a slow builder that explodes into life and light, the poignant nature of the song about the death of a very close friend and mentor explained us to by Tim before they turn into more of a celebration of life rather than a mourning of its passing.
Next up is Born Of Frustration and it is stretched out deliciously, both at the start as Tim implores us all to mimic his calling card yodel and in the breakdown where Larry’s guitars lift the song up and catapult it towards its thrilling crescendo. It’s been out of the sets for a while and this is a welcome return for a genuine crowd-pleaser.
It’s followed by Stutter and yet more experimentation, something that they were still working through during the soundcheck and performed taking risks in its execution. For a song that’s over thirty years old and which has never seen a studio version release, it’s them at their most thrilling, most ecstatic and where they cast aside so many notions of what people who don’t know them expect of them. It’s a tale of raw catharsis and honest damning self-assessment set to a cranked-up almost metallic beat that’s accentuated tonight by all nine of them (including Ron Yeadon and their drum tech) battering away at some form of drum as the strobes skit around the stage.
Then they show a very different control of pace and power in a song as Interrogation starts off very fragile and mutates before our ears into something quite extra-ordinary as they hit the breakdown. It’s a technique that James have mastered since they returned (see also I Wanna Go Home and Look Away), but this is the most powerful exhibition of it yet.
The main set then finishes with a triumphant trio of three of their best-known and best-loved songs. Laid is a frantically daft two and half minutes that sends the crowd berserk and makes us wonder what the night would be like if James actually did the one thing we wouldn't expect of them and play a greatest hits set. At the end Tim makes an impassioned speech about the lifting of the gay marriage ban in the States and that who people love is no one else's business.
Come Home sees Tim jump down into the crowd and go walkabout which sends the security into panicked meltdown. However, the communal love of the gig means that he's in no danger as he passes through seeking connections and taking the gig to the fringes of the crowd. It does mean however that's he stranded away from the stage as the song finishes. Then something truly magical happens.
The band strike up Sometimes as their front man makes his way back and the crowd start singing the chorus back at them repeatedly without prompting but in unison, all five and a half thousand of us. The song is often sung back at the end, but even the band are taken aback by this and when Tim finally makes it back, he too is astonished by what he's witnessed. It encourages the band to improvise, Saul picks up the violin and so the song takes on a different route to how we've heard it before and then the audience take it back off the band. It's as powerful as that moment that Sit Down etched itself into musical folklore back in 1990, yet sadly not captured for generations to relive other than in our own memories.
Moving On gets a rapturous response, a sign that La Petite Mort definitely made an impact as you look around and see everyone singing along. Sit Down, having benefited from a rest, sounds like the life-affirming anthem of community that it's always been. There's no attempts at trying to make it into something it's not and the whole place is on their feet, dancing, singing, waving their arms around. For a song that has its detractors amongst the James fanbase, its ability to unite is unquestionable.
And yet they're still not done. It's difficult to think what they could follow that with, but Out To Get You is a fitting end, a typically left-field move to play an album track as the final song on such an occasion when you look at the big-hitters missing from the setlist. It's no ordinary album track though, its genesis as a scratchy demo b-side being reinvented into the opening track on Laid and its inclusion on the Best Of ensuring its place in the hearts of the James faithful. Again, as the song builds and the band go off in multiple directions as Tim loses himself in the music, it's Saul's violin that takes centre stage as they improvise to its conclusion.
All in all, James delivered what you'd expect of them at a gig like this - in ways at times you wouldn't expect them to and that's the essence of what they're about. Whilst they're in the studio recording a new record, it's often difficult for them to focus on older material when there's so much excitement about the new, but their insistence on playing so much from last year's La Petite Mort demonstrates their immense pride in that record and the moments when the drums kicked in during Stutter and, in particular, Sometimes will live long in the memory from tonight.
James played Sound, Ring The Bells, Curse Curse, Gone Baby Gone, All Good Boys, All I'm Saying, Born Of Frustration, Stutter, Interrogation, Laid, Come Home and Sometimes with an encore of Moving On, Sit Down and Out To Get You.
James' official website can be found here. They are on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the band - Tim, Larry, Andy and Dave - are also on Twitter.