In the wake of May's bombing at Manchester Arena that claimed the lives of 22 Ariane Grande fans, James sought to arrange a benefit concert or participate in the Arena reopening show headlined by Noel Gallagher, but the end result was this intimate concert at the imposing Wesleyan chapel that is the Albert Hall where they improvised a new song, revealed two new songs from their forthcoming album with composer Joe Duddell as well as playing a carefully mixed set of hits from across their career as well as fan favourite album tracks. Support came from a stunning acoustic set from Manchester's own The Slow Readers Club and a solo set from Glasvegas' James Allan.
Billed as "surprise guests", it was no real surprise that The Slow Readers Club opened up proceedings. Championed incessantly by James in the way that they were by The Fall, The Smiths and New Order back in the earlier days (something that the frankly tedious few that bemoan their presence could do well to remember) because of the simple fact that they love their music, they've recently sold this beautiful space out months in advance in their own right.
Tonight they perform acoustically as a three-piece, six songs from across their two albums and their most recent single Lunatic, the precursor to their third album due early next year. The acoustic setting brings into sharp focus the depth of emotions that front man Aaron can impart with his voice, whilst his and brother Kurtis' acoustic guitar and Jim's bass resonate around this hall as the James fans see another side to a band that's destined to have an even more stellar 2018 than the previous twenty four months. The songs do their bidding for them too - Sirens from their debut and Lunatic itself are not obvious candidates for this treatment but stripping them down reveals more unheard layers to them, whilst Block Out The Sun and Cavalcade are more obvious candidates but the venue's crystal clear sound that is spot on all night simply makes them sparkle even more.
It's the combination of I Saw A Ghost, the song that first brought them to Jim's attention, and Forever In Your Debt, whose intro sounds like the twisted brother of Under Pressure, though that bring the house down and send the READERS chants in overdrive. It's no surprise that James fans have taken The Slow Readers Club to their hearts, their songs trade in the same language, dark thoughts and feelings and experiences spun round and turned into a celebration. This might be where the two bands part ways in terms of playing together, but there's a bond that won't be broken.
James then play the first of two sets, and, awkward buggers that they are, they don't play by the rules of this sort of event. They've talked before about playing an improvised jam set as a show and they start off by giving us an insight into their writing process. Tim, Jim, Mark and Saul, accompanied by a drum machine on Tim's iPhone and half way through by Andy, deliver a nine-minute jam that's probably got enough ideas in it for ten songs. It's fascinating for the die-hard fan to see them do this in such a public space and the audience respond in kind to the audacity of them being brave enough to do it.
They're then joined by a string quartet arranged by Joe Duddell for a five-song set which features two singles, Seven and Sit Down, two new songs Mask and Many Faces as well as the beautifully understated Millionaires album track Hello. They open with Seven, a wall of strings ushering it in leaving us unsure as to what they're about to play until Tim sings the opening line by the end of which he's almost drowned out by the audience reciting the song back to him. They're further joined by Ainslie Henderson, who's worked on much of the new album, as well as Becky from The Unthanks, who add backing vocals to Mask. Tim describes it as probably sounding nothing like the album version but if you could do such a thing as classify James songs, it has that build that many of their best songs do, starting off slow and growing until exploding into glorious life in the middle eight as Tim loses himself in the music around him.
Following a couple of questions from the audience which Saul describes as having everyone round for tea, they resurrect one of the highlights of the Orchestral tour of 2011. Hello was often overlooked when released on Millionaires, partly due to an over fussy production but with strings and Mark's keyboards taking the lead, it's got a claustrophobic edge to it that reflects in the lyrics. Tim thanks those who were quiet at the end, commenting on the mix of the audience between those that came to the orchestra tour and those who want the raucous ones. The next song is introduced as one they had to play because of the nature of the event and the way the song helped so many. Surprisingly this doesn't raise a massive cheer until the introduction, beautifully arranged and delicate in its execution, leads into "I sing myself to sleep" at which point it becomes a communal singalong. That's probably one of the reasons it wasn't set to this arrangement on the orchestra tour, but tonight, in the circumstances, it feels like the perfect song for the night.
The final song of the string set is another one called Many Faces, written in response to Donald Trump and building a wall. They start with the chorus - "there's only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here" - with the intention that we all sing along to it when it comes back at the end. A beautiful yearning wandering trumpet ushers the song in, Ainslie joins Tim in a call and response section in the middle of the song before that chorus comes in. It's been recorded with a choir on the album version so promises to be something spectacular when it's released early next year and follow in the footsteps of Nothing But Love in creating modern day James classics to line up against the big guns.
Next up is James Allan, front man of Glasvegas, but tonight playing one of his first solo gigs, although he is joined for one song by his mum. It's a performance of some intensity, mostly performed on a huge set of keyboards that obscures him from the view of many of us. He dispatches the Glasvegas classic Geraldine on a guitar, and his voice is absolutely stunning, but it doesn't feel like he makes a connection in the room. He tells us of his love of Manchester and even shows off his James watch, but even that doesn't quite seem to create a bond. It's an unfortunate situation as he's clearly lost in what he's doing, but it feels like it gets lost in translation between performer and the audience whose anticipation levels have been raised by the James set that preceded it so he's probably not afforded the attention this type of set demands. It'd be interesting to watch this in a small room with an audience that's there to listen and appreciate.
All of that is forgotten though as James take to the stage for their main set and the atmosphere in the room is at boiling point. The one-off nature of the gig means they're in a playful mood, ready to tease the songs and tantalise with experimental arrangements such as on opening track To My Surprise from their last album Girl At The End Of The World or a slowed down How Was It For You, shorn of its trademark riff, but no less appealing, or as Tim puts it so succinctly "sexier with age, just like us." Born Of Frustration is another song that lends itself to such chicanery, although Tim's trademark yodel calling card is a little less discrete especially when two and a half thousand people mimic it with varying degrees of success. The whole place is up on its feet now though, carried away on the moment and the energy coming from the stage that gets bounced back with a boost that makes you wonder if they can keep this going for the rest of the set.
It's James though and they tread a fine line between delivering exactly what a Best Of type audience wants (the set has big hit singles spread thickly throughout it in How Was It For You?, Tomorrow, Moving On, Come Home, She's A Star, Nothing But Love and Sometimes) and the less well-known songs that the audience crave (Play Dead, Lost A Friend, Interrogation and Attention). They deliver it as ever with a cleverness that means momentum is never lost and Tim's out amongst us on Curse Curse, bending almost contorted over the front rows as well as ignoring all health and safety rules and a fair bit of self-preservation by clambering up onto the balcony and dangling precariously over us for the main set closer Come Home, showing that their intent is not just to connect emotionally but also physically with us.
It's Ron Yeadon's last gig with the band before he departs for fatherhood and he's given a rousing reception by the fans who've taken them to their hearts in the four years he's been in the band. He'll be a big loss to as his backing vocals often help give light and shade to Tim's lead vocals, no more so than on the majestic Attention which has steadfastly stood its ground since its release on Girl At The End Of The World and displaced old favourites like Sound from the set. Tonight with the lights and a near-perfect sound every nuance of the song, particularly its breakdown, can be experienced as the Albert Hall lives up to its billing as one of the country's truly special venues. It doesn't feel like there's over two thousand people in here, because of the proximity of everyone to the stage and the intense connection that James always make which feels exceptionally poignant tonight given the circumstances of the gig.
The encore sees them strip She's A Star right down to its bare bones, something James are adept at doing to recreate and revitalise songs, yet it's almost drowned out as the audience sensing the evening is coming to a close let loose. Nothing But Love is met with a sea of swaying arms and proves that although bands like James will not get chart singles in a world where streaming is king, they can still create songs that make a connection and generate the love and reverence reserved for the goliaths of the 1990s back catalogue.
They finish though, inevitably but also quite rightly, with Sometimes. They invite Ainslie and Becky back on stage as well as Aaron from The Slow Readers Club to join in. It's a magical moment both on and off the stage as the audience take over the song as it reaches the breakdown and refuse to give it back to the band until they've departed and the house lights come back on. It's the song that, whilst not their best known, is the one that never fails to make a connection, ignite a spark in the audience and deliver a message of love with that simplest of lines "sometimes when I look in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul."
Tonight James were soul music, healing the heart of a city that was devastated by an attack on the gig culture that is at the very core of what makes Manchester one of, if not the principal music city of the world.
James' official website can be found here. They are on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the band - Tim, Andy and Dave - are also on Twitter.
We also run the One Of The Three James archive, the most detailed resource for information about the band, and the site also has a Facebook and Twitter page.
James Allan is in Glasvegas who are on Facebook and Twitter.
The Slow Readers Club can be found at their website. They are also on Facebook and Twitter.
They play Hebden Bridge Trades Club (February 2) and Liverpool Sound City (May 5/6).
Lead photo and Tim crowd photo by Ed "ED" Smith