James, well three of them, played an intimate stripped-down three-song set at Manchester's HMV on Monday interspersed with a Q and A session hosted by Inspiral Carpets keyboard player and XS Manchester DJ Clint Boon before signing copies of their new album Living In Extraordinary Times.
With almost universally positive (and unusually bountiful in number) reviews of their new album, James are on the promotional trail and they stopped off at HMV in the Arndale after an afternoon of radio sessions and interviews with two hundred and fifty fans having queued to ask their heroes a question, get albums signed and watch them play stripped down versions of Leviathan and Many Faces from Living In Extraordinary Times and an old favourite Just Like Fred Astaire.
Leviathan is first up and Tim's already promised that there won't be any "potty mouth" words, conscious of the row of children sat a few feet away and the unsuitability of the line "fucking love, fucking and love" for both a wider audience and radio. And Leviathan, swearing apart, has single written all over it. It's a celebration of the sort of love that hits you straight between the eyes and is all-consuming that you find when and where you least expect it. Fucking is replaced by tainted, and fucking and love by this crazy love and it still works. With Saul adding backing vocals to the chorus, echoing Tim's words with a slight delay, it's testament to how James can twist and turn their songs into something different and how they can reinvent themselves depending on the available personnel.
Many Faces doesn't undergo quite as radical a transformation, but there's almost silence except for a crying baby downstairs (who Clint jokes later is still singing the song) until the song reaches its "there's only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here" line where the crowd take the song off the three of them and sing it back to them. You'd expect this with a Sometimes or a Sit Down, but for a new song it's almost unheard of and the band are taken aback that it happens in such a non-traditional performance environment. The stripped down version of the song has very much a similar feel, but not sound, to the song that cannot be named, in that it has a sense of unity and coming together in the face of bad things happening in the world.
The last of the three songs, a bonus as only two had been advertised, was Just Like Fred Astaire, performed just before the band took on signing duties. Without the glossy production that characterised much of Millionaires, it feels like an even more unashamed love song, simple in its message and still a real favourite with the James fan base as evidence by the numbers either singing along or holding their camera phones aloft to film it for someone special who wasn't there.
The whole thing is hosted with humour and love by Clint Boon. Before the band appear he talks of discovering them back in 1983 and being smitten with them and how they've stayed true to their path over the last 35 years. He interjects into the conversation and questions without ever making it about himself as the best comperes do, but adds gravity to the respect with which James are viewed by their peers in what still is their hometown. Jim talks eloquently about that love, particularly their huge comeback show at the Arena in 2007.
In between songs, Tim, Jim and Saul talk about songs they'd wish they'd written (Leonard Cohen's Chelsea Hotel, anything by The Doors, The Beatles and Neil Young), the early days with Paul when Jim bought a £50 bass and played their first gig within two weeks and was "rubbish" but got addicted to it and how they are lucky to be doing something they love so much that also helps to pay the mortgage.
Tim explains the set list process, as James still change their set every night dependent on factors like the mood of the band, the night of the week, the songs they played the last time they were in the town and striking a balance between songs people want to hear and the ones the band are excited to play and how they have a list of eighty to ninety songs that they can pull and practice in soundcheck to add to a show. They laugh at their ad-hoc approach to rehearsing, partly due to their love of improvisation, the geographical difficulty of getting together and, as Tim laughs, "being lazy." Saul jokes that in a few years time, he'll be doing cruises with Jim and with former member Michael Kulas on vocals as "The James for legal reasons" doing "James covers, Inspiral Carpets covers and anything you ask for."
It's an interesting and refreshing take on an in-store rather than the traditional format of a band plugging in and playing six songs and not looking like they really want to be there. Instead there's a bond formed between band and audience by the ability to ask a question and get a personal response delivered with both sincerity and humour, especially when an audience member asks who they got to write their name behind them so Tim turned to see "Games" in huge letters at the back of the stage. The acoustic songs are a real treat. The James live experience is so much about the collective that the eight (or however many members they have) bring together, but these events with varying numbers and formations of the band cast the songs in a different light, allow them to play with the songs and deliver interesting, intriguing versions of the originals shedding new light on them.
Living In Extraordinary Times is available in the following formats and a variety of bundles from the James store :
James Web Store Exclusive White Vinyl in yellow sleeve
Indies and HMV Exclusive Magenta Vinyl in grey sleeve
White Label Test Pressing Exclusive To Web Store
Everything other than the indies magenta vinyl is available from the band's official store.
Our review of Better Than That EP featuring Better Than That and Hank from the album can be found here.
James play festival shows at 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.
TimBoothLyricADay, whose posts often lead to Tim explaining his thought processes behind the lyrics, can be found on Twitter and Facebook.