James opened their Better Than That tour at Llandudno Venue Cymru with a set that mixed half of their newly-announced Living In Extraordinary Times with some old Best Of era favourites, highlights of their most recent two albums as well as the odd rarity. Support came from Newcastle’s wonderful Lanterns On The Lake, eventually making their bow with James after years of trying to make the support slot work.
Lanterns On The Lake’s six-song set is a mix of the old and new. The five-piece tell us that they’ve heard good things about how receptive the James audience is, but they deserve the response they get, which isn’t just loud applause at the end of each song, but proper silence for when they’re playing, even at the quieter and more intense moments. And Lanterns On The Lake can get quite intense. There’s the likes of Through The Cellar Door, off their second album Until The Colours Run or The Crawl and the epic title-track Beings, both from their third album where it feels like halls of this size are just right for the scale of their ambition that hasn’t, yet, been matched by record sales. Of the new songs, Every Atom feels claustrophobic and like it’s telling the most important story with a message for everyone to take in.
Hazel moves from guitar to keyboards dependent on the songs, but there’s a real humility to her in both the thank you for James and the audience that suggest that they can’t believe they’ve been handed this opportunity. Firstly, they absolutely do as one of the most hard-working bands that refuse to compromise to get bigger and secondly they have the songs, what’s lacking is getting them heard by a wider audience. The James crowd, to the most extent until the last minute rush in before their heroes come on, appreciate them as they should and will hopefully help massively increase their profile. The only complaint we’d have is that they only got half an hour instead of forty five minutes.
After what seems like an age, the sound of drums kick up, but it’s not just Dave, because as the other members take to the stage, they pick up drumsticks and start to beat out a tribal rhythm that sounds like one of the impromptu jams James used to do way back in the day before Sit Down and whilst Gavan was in the band, They drop into the final track to be revealed from the Better Than That EP and the opening track from Living In Extraordinary Times, Hank, a stinging rebuttal of what the President Of The United States Donald Trump stands for. Vocally it benefits from not having the intended production haze of the recording so you can hear Tim singing about gun attacks and the NRA turning a blind eye to the likes of Columbine and Sandy Hook because it suited their narrative. It’s potent, political stuff, something that the album apparently contains many references to, but it’s a sign of James’ latest shedding of skin and reinvention.
Tim had created a bit of a rumour frenzy by telling us on Twitter that there might not be as much variation in the setlist because of a surprise they had planned for us. He’s often talked about a gig he witnessed as a young man when Talking Heads played the whole of one of their albums live before it came out – and there was much speculation that this would be the case. The second song of the night is Heads, another track about the impact of Trump (he had told us in the soundcheck there were two of them) with lines about the American dream and “God bless inequality”, which is track four on the new record putting to bed any such expectation. It starts with a beat that has the audience clapping along and it mixes shimmering electronics with some more raw drumming and percussion. It all goes awry half way through with some technical issues, but rather than fall apart, they simply stop, start again, tell us they expect us to sing along the second time as it’s an old friend and Tim laughs at the end that “it’s nearly how it goes.”
The surprise is introduced slightly later in the set, but, spoiler alert for the rest of the tour, it is the introduction of Debbie Knox-Hewson, who plays drums with Charlie XCX. A few frankly unnecessary and inappropriate wolf whistles apart (it’s 2018 lads, you’re not on a building site in the 1970s), she fits in like she’s always been there, particularly on the newer material, but also providing a bigger bolder backbone to some of the older favourites. She’s a new injection of energy too, never standing still, and that seems to feed the rest of the band, something the band have thrived on over the years.
That’s at its most evident on the next track Ring The Bells. With the stage bathed in simple but effective orange light, the crowd favourite soars into life and feeds off its own energy as Tim loses himself in the music as the song hits that extended middle section where Andy adds vocals. They delve even further back into their catalogue for Hymn For A Village, thirty-five plus years on younger than some of the audience. Adrian has really grown back into taking guitar solos on songs like this and making his own mark on them and Tim’s stage prowling ends with him eyeball to eyeball encouraging him to go further. At the end he tells us that they played it as fast as they did right back at the start when they did so out of fear. Here and now, it’s a different energy feeding them but one no less potent.
James do often drop most of the previous album when touring a new one, but Nothing But Love survives the cull. It’s the one, and probably only point, in the set where Ron’s contribution, the soaring backing vocals that lift it up on a wave of love, is missed (not that he didn’t do anything, just they either play different songs or their wandering creative spirit reinvent the song to cope with it). We may be being harsh there as they’re clearly having opening night struggles with the on-stage sound and the sea of arms and choir of angels that hark at the sentiments of it tell their own story.
Leviathan is another new one and promises to be one of the album’s journey songs, the sort that James excel at but which because of their structure can never be singles as there’s so many ideas, kernels of about a dozen different songs in their make-up that somehow fit together, in there that they’re just too bold for radio schedulers. It talks of getting enough love before the bomb gets dropped, trips on star ships never being the same twice as the music drops down, stops and then roars back into life and soars off into the stratosphere. Some wag in the audience shouts for Scarecrow to which Tim replies they’d rehearsed it yesterday, but they were going to try our patience in other ways. And whilst these new songs, and the fact there’s so many of them unheard in the set, are a challenge, the audience is generally up for that, and Tim acknowledges that by thanking them for being so open.
Five-O gives a bit of respite, particularly in Saul’s gorgeous opening violin section. Tim jests later that Saul will write a book called “The Reluctant Violinist” and if he doesn’t then he will. There’s something magical though as he opens the song and before a word has been sung, the emotion of the song has poured off the stage and is threatening to drown the audience.
Coming Home Part 2 is introduced as the sequel to Come Home. It’s a song written by Tim to his youngest son about being away from home touring, missing birthdays, having to rely on Facetime for communication and concluding with a line about wanting to hold hands across the dark. It shows that whilst the new record is taking a political and social stance about the state of the world that James haven’t lost the ability to create something deeply personal and some around us already have picked up on the chorus by the time they’ve finished hearing it for the first time and are singing along.
Mixing new and old well and giving those wanting a blast from the past some respite, Curse Curse and Born Of Frustration provide just that. Both see Tim out in the crowd, the former diving headlong into a sea of camera phones to which he laments the way society is focused on posterity rather than living the here and now like Zen Buddhists and the latter going walkabout to greet the fans on the raised viewing platform at the side of the hall.
Out To Get You makes a surprise return as Tim had told someone on Twitter that it was being rested, but not having been played for a while, it hits us right between the eyes and we’d forgotten the overwhelming emotional impact the song can have, on us, and clearly over time on many many James fans as it’s a song whose exclusion causes as much consternation as the big hits.
“This is another new one, you’re going to love it” Tim tells us without a hint of arrogance, but with a confidence that Many Faces possesses the potential to usurp Sometimes as the big singalong anthem at the end of the set, the way Sometimes played Brutus to Sit Down’s Caesar many years ago. It’s glorious chorus “we’re one human race, many faces, everyone belongs here” alludes to Trump’s threat to build a wall on the Mexican border, but its talk of fear of change and us all being the same deep down send a much deeper message that can be taken at any point between global and addressing an individual. Like Coming Home Part 2, people are singing along before it’s even ended.
Saul tells us that Busted is “too good for the record”, to which Tim replies “it’s not good enough or we choose the wrong ones.” With what’s gone before the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, it possesses some of the traits of the new ones that have gone before particularly the percussion in the breakdown, but it’s not difficult to see why they drew the line above it yet still wanted it out in the world on the Better Than That EP on which it features.
How Was It For You? has fought its way back into the setlist in the past year or so and steadfastly refused to shift. The version tonight isn’t quite as stripped back as it was last year, but neither does it get blasted out with the vitriol of the Gold Mother era and it therefore feels it’s still in the throes of being reinvented once again. It’s hollered back at a volume that threatens to deafen the band though.
Better Than That feels like it’s been injected with steroids. There’s an echo on Tim’s voice that bounces off the walls of the hall and gathers power in doing so as he comes down and is lifted on a sea of hands pretty much all the way back to the mixing desk, turned round and carried back, all without dropping a note or him being dropped. He calls it “an act of faith” at the end.
They finish on Come Home and the whole place goes ballistic. The stage is set in a dark crisp burning orange that looks like the embers of a big fire settling and only the core of the fire still visible. Thousands of arms are raised aloft, everyone’s own interpretation of the lyrics are sung back like some form of communal expulsion of demons. Like many of the crowd, it’s confident in its own skin despite being a little wobblier round the edges. That it can still be played so often and never sound tired is testament to what this band can do that few others of their vintage can – retaining a freshness, vigour and reinventiveness without losing the crowd.
The encore opens with Sometimes and sees the whole band, except Mark who surveys the scene from his bank of keyboards and Tim, lined up across the front of the stage with guitars, replicating their legendary 1993 Top Of The Pops performance of the song in an attempt to keep the song as fresh and vital as it’s always been. The audience take it off the band though and chant it back, forcing them to come back and take the song off in a different direction as Tim loses himself in the moment, whilst Saul agitates the crowd to do the same.
Attention is the only other Girl At The End Of The World song to survive that particular cull and rightly so. It’s one of those songs that they create two or three of on each record that you never get tired of hearing and they never get tired of finding new ways to explore. With Debbie up front with Tim and the to now modest but hugely effective lighting show being cranked up, it takes the audience buoyed by the ecstasy of Sometimes on a deeper darker trip.
To send the crowd out into the night buzzing they finish on the surefire bets of Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) and the rested and refreshed Laid. The first has become the band’s anthem, their kiss-off line when things go awry as they so often do, and testament to the fact that even when they weren’t at the full height of their success they had songs that made deep lasting connections. Laid makes no such pretensions to that, it’s just a three and a bit minute romp, the first verse being played slowly and then kicking back in and being repeated before sending the crowd into one huge frenzied moshpit.
As opening nights go this has to be seen as a success. The six songs from the new album fit pretty much effortlessly into the set and a couple already have made their mark by the crowd picking them up even before the end of the first hearing, and is so often the case with James, you hear how they’ve influenced the elder statesmen of the back catalogue with their youthful vigour. Debbie is seamlessly integrated, despite the band’s tendency to not over-rehearse, but she brings a new visual energy to the performance as well as percussion that comes from a different place. The set strikes the right balance between old and new as well, enough for the casual fan and something for the hard core wanting to hear what’s being going on in their minds for the last eighteen months.
James played Hank, Heads, Ring The Bells, Hymn From A Village, Nothing But Love, Leviathan, Five-O, Coming Home Part 2, Curse Curse, Born Of Frustration, Out To Get You, Many Faces, Busted, How Was It For You?, Better Than That, Come Home, Sometimes, Attention, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) and Laid.
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.
Listen to the songs from the new Better Than That EP below -
Better Than That / Busted / Broken By The Hurt / Hank
And read about the new album Living In Extraordinary Times here.
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.