The James tour rolled into Bath on Thursday, scene of the recording of One Man Clapping just over thirty years ago, for night two of the Living In Extraordinary Times tour and a two-set performance by James which defied many of the conventional norms of how you structure a setlist when you have a hit-laden back catalogue.
First mention has to go to the venue. It's one of the most exciting things when you're following a tour to go and see a band in a place you haven't seen them before and even more so when the venue feels like a perfect fit for the band. Bath Forum is like a mini Brixton Academy in layout if you take the seats out with the sloping floor allowing everyone to see wherever they are stood. The sound is excellent and with a few minor tweaks (that we are told are planned) to the bars, it'd be the perfect place for gigs in the South West, just round the corner and less than a ten-minute ride from Bristol, home of venues that don't come close to this one.
James appear to have taken some feedback from social media the night before that the first set wasn't acoustic enough as they start tonight's proceedings with just Jim, Saul and Tim on stage for a really stripped-down version of Just Like Fred Astaire, at one point huddled together, the next taking the whole length of the stage as Saul adds the "come dance the water's rising" response to Tim wandering slowly across the stage. It's a crowd favourite in any case, but this version feels like it squeezes every last bit of love out of people.
This acoustic set is very much aimed at giving James the space to revisit songs that wouldn't make the cut for a full-blown electric set. Backwards Glances is one such track, culled by the record label's insistence that James couldn't have a double album and rescued by the deluxe format of Living In Extraordinary Times from being one of those songs that are talked about in whispers but which no one has actually heard. It's an achingly delicate heartfelt emotional song that needs to be heard, to be the counterpoint to the metallic driving energy of most of James' most recent work. It's dedicated to Tim's wife Kate who is in the crowd and Coming Home (Part 2) is dedicated to his song Luka who is also here. Tim jokes that as a teenager he'll be curling up into a ball with embarrassment.
That this song is so raw in its emotions about being away from home gets to Tim as he gets the opening lyrics wrong twice, but as this is James, they simply smile and start again and the audience understands and gets that this right down to the knuckle exposure of feelings is what makes this band so special that when they cut too close to the chase they are instantly forgiven. Shorn of the arpeggio that took the unfinished version of this from the Girl At The End Of The World sessions into single territory, it's transformed into something quite different. There's a touching moment where Jim checks on his band mate to see if he's OK to carry on and then a light-hearted one before All I'm Saying, where he jokes that he chose the setlist of songs that Tim wrote about harrowing moments deliberately. That camaraderie is seen later too when Jim and Tim are discussing which song to play next and Saul tells us they're discussing a solo project that doesn't include him.
Hello is led by Mark's piano and feels even more haunting here than it did in Margate the night before, accentuated by the lack of chatter and the space it's being performed in. That chat between Tim and Jim saw Jim sit down and Tim, Mark and Saul perform Destiny Calling. For us, this one of James' weakest songs, the point where they got closest to being like most other bands, but here, with a little humour, "gotten old" instead of "getting old" and a new perspective placed on it, it feels fresh and reinvigorated and nothing like going through the motions. They finish the already-expanding acoustic section, which we wouldn't be surprised if it had become half the show by the end of the two-week run, with Pressure's On, a song retrieved from their experimental album Wah Wah, but one that a vocal minority of fans have always wanted them to revisit. This is the perfect opportunity to do so, the idiot who came up with this idea that Tim refers to at the start, looking something more akin to a genius at this point.
If anyone had any illusions, or should we say delusions, to the acoustic set sating James' desire to challenge and stray from the normal expectations of a rock concert allowing the electric set to be a stream of predictable crowd-pleasures, they're quickly shattered. They start with Five-O, the stage bathed in a majestic purple light, the sound crystal clear so you can hear the points at which the song soars from underneath itself like an unseen wave that you only see when it's upon you. What's It All About and Heads are two of the most shining examples of what James are about in 2019. The former is a twisting, turning journey song with as many ideas in it as most bands would have in a career, yet still feels coherent, even more so live on record where it's stripped off its drop down ending, whilst the latter is pure metallic brute force, accentuated by lighting that feels like another instrument of force hitting you.
The crowd are now itching to get up and dance and Leviathan gives them that excuse. One woman stands up near the front and nervously encourages everyone else to before Tim tells us it's OK so people stream to the front and into the aisles. Unlike other venues there's no draconian security clamping down on such anti-social behaviour and there's absolutely no issues as the crowd, like mature adults, police themselves. On the new record, James have created a few moments where in a live show you can stop dead, build tension, and then the song comes crashing back in and the moment where this happens in Leviathan, you can feel the whole thing lift into this curious celebration of love that's the "weathered, has a shape, beyond a new" one of the lyrics. Moving On is beautifully poignant, a reminder that they can still bypass the hard external walls we all put up and melt our inners with words and the uplifting music behind it that get to the real core of who we are and what we feel.
"You might want to sit down for this one" Tim laughs adding "if you were coming just to hear Sit Down you might have problems with tonight" as they play Moving Car for the first time live. It's refreshing and revitalising to see a band totally dismiss the natural order that they should use when choosing a setlist of songs people will be most familiar with and go with their gut instinct. It's a curious song, as Tim explained in the VIP soundcheck, as it never comes back to one place but sort of wanders its own path.
Picture Of This Place follows it, a wild whirlwind of a song. It's interesting to note that Living In Extraordinary Times' three lead singles (Hank, Better Than That and Coming Home (Part 2)) have been absent from this electric sets, which says something of where the band's mindset is right now, going for the jugular of songs that push them rather than the ones that someone at the label has deemed to be the most accessible. It leaves everything in the hands of the delivery of the song, the mood, the lighting and Picture Of This Place is simply exceptional. Tim asks at the end who has not heard the album and gets surprisingly few negative responses. He tells the story of how he saw Talking Heads in Edinburgh before Remain In Light came out and they played the whole unreleased album and people slowly realised they were listening to a masterpiece, before laughing "I'm not saying this is as good as Remain In Light" before adding mischievously but seriously "but I am."
Stutter, a song written back in 1982, doesn't feel out of place amongst all these songs that came three and a half decades later, the same kinetic energy radiates from its core, the percussion acting as a centrifugal force and the lights not allowing the audience's attention to wander from what's going on up on stage. There's another conversation taking place about the setlist, and as they strike into the next song, Mark's elongated keyboard solo leading the way, the majority aren't sure what's coming next until Tim sings that line "I sing myself to sleep...." At one point there's just him and us singing a verse as the instruments fall silent. At the end Tim tells us the conversation was about whether the gig had transcended the song or whether the song had added to it. I think the answer was probably the latter, but if it hadn't been played something else would have taken its place. He then muses on the fact that two things in his opinion made the song - the line about "those who find themselves ridiculous" and the "down" just before the song explodes, something he says wouldn't pass the record label algorithm tests on songs these days and which they fought to keep in the hit single version.
Those expecting a stream of hits to follow to the end of the set, something James have been very adept at doing over the years to counter the experimentation early to mid-set would be disappointed although there seems to be little dissent as they deliver a gorgeous version of How Hard The Day where Chloe and Andy's harmonies add extra lift to the song. It's followed by Maria, a song played in the acoustic section the night before that has moved across into the electric set in the way reinvented songs did similar after the orchestra tour. It's about "the sexiest party you've ever been to" and still feels twenty-six years on that it's having something added to it each time they play it.
The more familiar hookline of Come Home rings out around the hall, more people stand up and move forwards to dance and Tim comes down the stairs to join us, looking for people lost in the music to dance with, making his way eventually to Kate and dancing with her in a genuinely touching moment. They finish the main set with Attention, further testament to the fact that they're consciously or sub-consciously veering away from the obvious setlist choices on this tour.
Getting close to curfew they rush back on stage for the encore rather than leaving us hanging and strike into Many Faces. The night before the audience didn't catch on and singalong the song's uplifting "there's only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here" call to arms, but this Bath crowd do. Each time the band look to stop and move on to the final song it gets louder and this goes on for several minutes and you can see the band genuinely moved and surprised. It happens at quite a few of their gigs, but tonight there's something about it happening that makes it feel extra-special.
They finish with Sound, a song that's been lived in so many times, but still feels like you're walking through a door and finding another room you've not seen before. Adrian lets loose on guitar as the song builds, Andy comes and joins us in the crowd as the song free-forms its way to the end of the night's events.
Tim said on Twitter post-gig that their concept has found its identity and it certainly felt like tonight's audience connected with what the band were intending to do. James aren't about doing the obvious, taking the easy route and going through the motions. The acoustic set showed just how much they lay themselves on the line, the electric set was them proudly showing off what they've just created, how they've adapted what they've done in the past. It's the outward expression of multiple personalities, as they're not your natural fit of mates in a band by character, that find common ground in the music, in the sentiments of that line in Many Faces and it brings those people who find them ridiculous together. Forget the labels pinned on them, the music press's ignorance towards them because they don't fit a mould or a story because they're too complex, James are still as unique a proposition as they were in the Factory days and still changing skins and bodies to find their identity before moving on to find another one.
James played Just Like Fred Astaire, Backwards Glances, Coming Home (part 2), All I'm Saying, Hello, Destiny Calling, Pressure's On, Five-O, What's It All About, Heads, Leviathan, Moving On, Moving Car, Picture Of This Place, Stutter, Sit Down, How Hard The Day, Maria, Come Home, Attention, Many Faces and Sound.
James' tour continues at London Royal Albert Hall (9), Cambridge Corn Exchange (11), Nottingham Royal Centre (12), Southampton O2 Guildhall (14), Stoke Victoria Halls (15), Newcastle City Hall (17), Edinburgh Usher Hall (18), Carlisle Sands Centre (20), Birmingham O2 Academy (21) and Hull Bonus Arena (22) before they play Porto Coliseum (April 3), Lisbon Coliseum (4), Thessaloniki Fix Factory (June 7), Athens Release Festival (8), Isle Of Wight Festival (14), Manchester Heaton Park (15, supporting Courteeners), Eastnor Castle Lakefest (August 11), Edinburgh Princes Gardens Summer Sessions (15), Doncaster Racecourse (17), Hardwick Live (18) and Knebworth Cool Britannia (31).
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.