During the VIP soundcheck, Jim described Lanterns On The Lake as a “listening band”, ie one that you have to focus on and listen to properly rather than waiting for the singalong earworm that so many search for. The crowd mostly get this through their six-song set, which features a number of new songs from their fourth album they’re in the process of writing and recording, Through The Cellar Door and The Crawl and the title track from their last album Beings. These songs possess a dramatic tension to them that feels even tighter and more intense in this beautiful old-school theatre venue that is perfectly suited to moments where violin, keyboards, drums and guitars collide and Hazel’s voice soars through the chaos, battling victoriously for space.
Whether it be new song Every Atom or Beings itself, you sense that they’re winning over these crowds who mainly will be unaware of their existence, and the response they get at the end confirms it, by simply not being the band that submits to the notion that support bands are there to provide the background to the audience’s pre-show conversation. Half an hour is simply insufficient though to appreciate what a wonderful criminally under-rated and multi-faceted band they are.
After what seems like an eternity the lights go down and James appear slowly from the darkness, first just Dave and Debbie starting up a tribal drumbeat that builds in ferocity as more of the band join them, before crashing into Hank. It’s immediately clear that James are “on one” tonight, one of those nights where they turn the special into the extra-special and at the heart of this are the seven new songs (six from the album, plus an EP track). Hank, and Heads that follows it, pull no punches in their condemnation of Trump and the structures that hold him up to the light. “I moved to California for mountains, sunshine and rattlesnakes,” says Tim, born just up the road from here in Bradford, “and I got Trumped” to huge cheers before Heads rails at the divides in American society that have been reopened like a gaping festering wound, demanding “don’t say it’s OK” before ending with Tim aloft on a raised section of stage dictating the song’s abrupt end.
Ring The Bells follows and sets those in the crowd off that haven’t already been by the start to the night. Although she’s only been with the band a week, and is learning much as she goes along, Debbie on percussion and backing vocals is already adding a new dimension to the band, her youthful energy and the lift the additional percussion gives the songs allows James to shed yet another of their skins and go down sonic paths on stage that they’ve previously not trodden. At the end Tim says they’d prepared a setlist of folk songs for a Sunday night crowd but that they’re going to have to rip that up.
The set tonight zigzags around thirty plus years of James. To My Surprise, the lead track from their last album Girl At The End Of The World, was often dropped on the tour supporting that record, but it’s been reinstated on this one. It’s not hard to tell why, as it fits their new found love of heavy percussive elements to their sound, even after the song crashes to a halt as Tim gets distracted as he ventures down towards the crowd. James being James, they simply shrug their shoulders, start again and make it even more special, the song finishing on an improvised section, musically and lyrically, that has Tim declaring “we’re becoming a dance band” at the end of it.
Gone Baby Gone would probably dissuade anyone who would care to argue. Having spotted a woman dancing in one of the side aisles, she’s invited up on stage and gives Tim such a run for his money that at the end he declares he’s so shattered that he’ll struggle with the next ten songs – he doesn’t of course. He also stands next to Jim and changes the words to reflect their thirty-four year relationship. Scarecrow is introduced as a song about his heroine Patti Smith, written back in 1983 which elicits a cheer and then us being told that many of us probably weren’t even born when they wrote it. Like so many of these songs that they bring back into the set though, somehow you cannot carbon date it, such is the way they inject these older songs with the DNA of the new material.
Say Something gets one of the biggest cheers of the night and is sung back to them before they even get to the point where Tim comes in, noticeably from the sides of the venue where Tim had earlier chastised the talkers. He commends the crowd at the end for not being too pissed and being present enough to live the moment and tells us how he’s the only person in the country who’s insured for stagediving.
Coming Home Part 2 is going to be their next single, according to Tim, and is about “being away from the kids and fucking up as a Dad.” Like so many of their finest moments, it hides dark and often self-critical lyrics behind a tune that lifts the audience up and out of their skin, before ending on the positive message of love that is “I wanna hold your hands across this dark.” How Was It For You? is slowed down and has some of its layers peeled back, but still extracts a huge singalong from the crowd, for many of whom its position as James’ first top-forty single will mean it was their first exposure to the band nearly three decades ago.
“Are you as cooked as we are” Tim asks us at the end of it. We’ve been cooked, reheated and put back in the oven to finish us off by this point, such is the ridiculous heat that’s been generated by this point, but no one cares about sweat running down faces as Saul leads an elongated guitar intro to Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) and the crowd wiping the sweat from their brows and diving in once more. Respite comes briefly in the form of Of Monsters And Heroes And Men, a welcome resurrection of a song that takes us on a spiritual journey through a twisted urban folk tale.
What happens next is something that will live in the memory as one of the most incredible gig moments as the audience takes the chorus of new song Many Faces, which remember the vast majority of them will never have heard before and it’s not been released or even played on radio, and sing it back to the band for more than five minutes. Its chorus of “there’s only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here” might have been written about Trump’s threat to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, but it embodies how this band write songs that are specific to Tim’s thought processes, but which allow everyone to put their own meaning to them and the two be completely compatible. In true James fashion, they probably won’t release it as a single.
That moment then turns to drama as Tim goes walkabout on the balcony, having been helped to climb up there by a stage hand. When we say walking on the balcony, we mean walking round pretty much the circumference of the balcony on the banister of the balcony. Hearts go into mouths every time he grabs someone’s hand for support and balance as he’s one mistake away from plunging down into us or onto the front of house. Somehow he’s still singing Born Of Frustration, including another improvised section as his journey means they have to extend the song rather than leave him stranded. As he gets back to stage, he tells us he saw his sister having a heart attack watching him balancing precariously, an inch or a wrong move away from serious injury or worse in the name of his art. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief and you can see the same in Jim’s face on the stage and the security guards who had no idea what to do.
Attention goes back to Girl At The End Of The World again for a song that takes on the challenge laid down by the new new material and meets it head on. With Debbie brought to the front of the stage to sing with Tim, the song flits between its many sections, slow, quiet and then an explosion of seismic nature, with the lights adding to the feeling of wild abandon.
Better Than That crashes to a halt a few seconds in and they simply shrug their shoulders and start again. Tim’s amongst us as the song reaches its glorious uplifting chorus and is almost dropped at one point. Nothing But Love sees a sea of arms waving from side to side as one of their more modern anthems seems to have tugged at many of the heartstrings that their selection of earlier big hits, some of which simply haven’t made the cut this time, have done and proof that this is a band that’s still alive and kicking and possibly at their most creative ever.
The main set finishes with Come Home, a song that has undergone so many resurrections and restructures in its time that you wonder how its component parts are still held together. Its loose ragged structure means that it never quite sounds the same two shows in a row and the Halifax crowd lift their weary bodies for a trip back in time to their youth and throwing themselves round an 1990’s indie disco.
They’re rapidly running out of time, so the long encore ritual is kept as short as possible as everyone except Mark (and Tim) make their way to the front of the stage and put on guitars to recreate the iconic video and Top Of The Pops appearance of Sometimes. From Dave’s almost nonchalant playing to the beaming joy on Debbie’s face, it’s a glorious way of keeping this song fresh, but as the audience start to try and take the song off them and make it their own, they have to curtail that because they still want to leave us, a few minutes over curfew time, already with what’s effectively two versions of Laid. They play it first really slow, Tim being completely drowned out by fifteen hundred voices before letting loose and draining every last remaining drop of energy from the flagging, drenched in sweat bodies of the crowd.
This was one of those extraordinary nights that James produce every once in a while. As they’ve aged yet kept their insatiable desire to challenge both themselves and their audiences, they’ve reached a point where they never seem to have off-nights, which makes these types of communal, almost spiritual, nights of connection even harder to attain. But armed with a risk-taking mentality that borders on the death wish at points, and a set of songs, both new and old, that seem to encourage each other to do something out of character, when they happen they create a buzz that means there’s going to be a lot of sleepness nights around this part of the world as the adrenaline they generate won’t stop flowing round the exhausted bodies of the crowd.
The Better Than That tour takes in the following venues : Middlesbrough Town Hall (22), Oban Corran Halls (23) and Scunthorpe Baths Hall (25).
They then play festival shows at Common People Southampton (May 26), Common People Oxford (27), Lisbon Rock In Rio (June 29), Latitude Festival (July 13), Bilbao BBK (14), Kendal Calling (27), Linlithgow Party At The Palace (August 11), Scarborough Open Air Theatre (18) and Drumlanrig Electric Fields (30).
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.
Lanterns On The Lake's official website can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter.