James rolled into Birmingham for the penultimate night of their Living In Extraordinary Times tour where they support themselves with an acoustic set that challenged the audience to keep quiet and listen before an electric set that mixed new with old.
Birmingham's O2 Academy is by far the worst venue of this size in the country. Labelled with a capacity of 2,884, it should start with a one. Huge overhanging balconies mean that most people are herded underneath them and the sound issues that creates with such a low ceiling and the main floor is so packed by people wanting to get a decent view that it's impossible to move or dance or get out of the way of the idiot who stands arms folded apart from the three songs he films with his camera above his head. Add in some heavy handed security on the balconies who Tim has to remind that dancing hasn't been illegal in this country for a century now and it's not the most conducive venue for a gig and possibly part of the reason Birmingham often gets overlooked on the gig circuit.
Whether it's linked or not, there are issues with the crowd's attention far more tonight than at previous shows during the acoustic set. At various points Tim has to threaten playfully that there will be no hits in the main set if people don't shut up or that they'll play acoustic for an hour so that those near the bars making all the noise will have to wait longer for their beer (and at £5.90 a pint he's probably doing them a favour).
"We're going to play some miserable songs, you're far too happy" is the introduction to the night, although there's something uplifting in the opening track Coming Home (Part 2) that contradicts that. Sure it's about the pain of being away from loved ones working, but there's a sense of optimism in the chorus that shouldn't be underplayed. There's a comedy moment when backline tech Warren has to cross the stage and Tim stops him to say hello. Broken By The Hurt though is drowned in pathos, a song about how people react differently to death, either going into the shell or feeling freed by it and living their life more after receiving bad news. It's a song they never felt they got right on record and just as they've captured it here, Tim tells us that we'll probably never hear it again as they prefer to make things up, improvise and have spirit rather than it be polished and lacking in it.
All I'm Saying is introduced as a miserable song, before Tim corrects himself and says it's a song about a piece of human nature, just one that we don't talk about very often because it's painful. It's irritating that such a poignant song, with artists baring their souls and putting themselves right on the edge, is played to the sound of background chatter, but that's modern-day gig going.
Pressure's On is taut, tense, but ultimately uplifting, beautifully evocative vocally as Chloe, Andy and Saul help lift the plaintive "cry" and make it feel like the emotion of the songs is being set free. Just Like Fred Astaire is given a huge welcome once Tim sings the opening line, hands clapping where they'd previously been glued to people's sides, and the singing along silencing the bar area. Down on the walkway overlooking the front rows, Tim waves his crutch around as he sings about love being for the naive and ad-libs the line "I'm the girl who got the girl"
There's a quick band discussion, "to assess if you're quiet enough", before the final song of the acoustic set. "We're going to make this one up" is the promise as Mark's piano reveals the opening bars to Sit Down. It's loose, the way the song always sound best because you can feel, hear and see the new ideas flowing off the stage, ending with Saul's violin and Andy's trumpet taking control as the rest of the band turn towards them and then to Adrian on cello as the song comes to its wandering conclusion. "The human mind never stops" is Tim's cryptic au revoir at the end of the set. It's a pity the most beautiful acoustic set so far got polluted by the inconsiderate.
The portents for the electric set are therefore mixed, but it takes just a few songs for James to blow away any cobwebs. Heads is brought forward to start the set as if to make a statement of intent and it's followed by What's It All About? It sets the stall out that this isn't going to be a hits and run night and given the title of the tour it shouldn't be either. There's pockets of dancing where people have found a few inches of space and a bouncing up and down mosh pit also starts as modern day James plays its cards early and with confidence in their hand.
Curse Curse follows, an exuberant single that was born in the wrong era for chart success, that sets the pulses racing as it's followed by Ring The Bells and the Academy starts to bounce as one as the strobes flash, Tim starts to let go with his dancing despite his damaged ankle and there's a real celebratory atmosphere.
Naturally James take a different course almost immediately. A long solitary violin opening from Saul ushers in a beautiful Five-O that somehow defies both the acoustics of the venue and silences the chatterers that have sensed their moment, but then realise belatedly that they might be missing out. All Good Boys is introduced as a b-side of a b-side of a b-side as Tim playfully admonishes someone shouting out a request by telling them "at least you're asking for Stutter and not one of the hits." There's a school of thought among some James fans that you could make an album of Millionaires b-sides that's at least the equal of the album and All Good Boys is part of their case. As it builds to a crescendo where the lights go down and six of them stand in a line across the stage and sing the refrain a cappella you think they might just have a point.
There's more shouts for requests that's met with the response "happiness is life minus expectations" and the show goes on with How Hard The Day, one of Living In Extraordinary Times' quieter yet most expressive moments that seems to have become a band favourite. As the opening notes of Laid strike up, the band have the song taken from them, Tim moving forward to drink in the way the audience sing back the first verse and chorus, "with a better falsetto than me", before they take it back and send the place into delirium.
"This one didn't make it on to the album, that bodes well" is the introduction to Moving Car, caveated by "we ran out of money," but it feels like in the intervening period they've got the song sounding how they wanted it. It's a curious song, clocking in at six minutes but without a firm structure, no chorus to return to as if it was born from the jamming process and worked just as it was without the filtration process down to a final song.
Picture Of This Place has been a highlight across the tour and tonight is no exception, a glorious celebration of where James the band are at this point in time. Tim calls it "sexy". It has a whirlwind energy that's so infectious that you can't help but be caught up by it, then it stops dead and comes back to finish off any stragglers.
Nothing But Love finally sees Tim take the plunge into the audience that he's been looking at doing for a while during the set. He ends up stuck at the back though as the song finishes, asking if "does this machine go backwards" as he's carried back to the stage on a sea of outstretched arms, trying not to take anyone out in the process. There's a comedy moment as he loses his in-ear pack on the journey back and has to retrieve it from the audience and be fixed up by Aled who gets his name chanted as a reward.
At the end of Extraordinary Times, a song that seems to grow in stature and power each time they play it, we're told to live by the song's mantra "live in the moment" although that's difficult for those up on the balcony who are being told that they can't dance by over-zealous security who seem intent on making a young boy on the front row of the balcony sit down despite him blocking no one's view at all. Tim spots this, calls them out and reminds them that dancing is not illegal.
Stopping people getting up and dancing to Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) would be pretty futile in any case, unless you're one of the phone cyborgs that Tim referred to earlier in the set. It's a song that feels refreshed again after having been given a rest at points last year, you can sense that it's regained that energy that courses through it. Leviathan has that energy in spades, another of the new songs that was born in the wrong time for chart success and rotation radio play, but stands right up against anything they've ever done, the exultant joy of the chorus as it bursts into life and light proof undeniable that James have got more potent and powerful as they've aged.
They finish the main set with Sound, Andy up on the balcony to challenge the prohibition of dancing whilst his band mates explore the possibilities of the song down on the stage As it concludes, there's a call and response refrain as the band gather to take their bow.
Come Home opens the encore and relishes the challenges thrown down by the younger pretenders to its crowd favourite throne. There's not much room to dance, but the crowd do their best to recreate the heady days of their youth to this timeless anthem to the downside of hedonism. Many Faces concludes the night and is where the evening becomes truly special. The crowd take the "there's only human race, many faces, everybody belongs here" and make it their own, so much so that the band simply stop playing, congregate at the front of the stage and stand in awe taking it in. The crowd speed it up, slow it down, stop then start again, getting louder with each turn round. Other than the memorable night in Halifax when it was still unreleased, it's not had a response this powerful.
Against the heavy odds stacked against it by the venue's physical restrictions and some of the audience's reluctance to engage with the spirit of the acoustic performance, the night feels like a triumph, one of those hard-earned ones with backs against the wall with a last-minute winner taking the spoils of battle.
James played an acoustic set of Coming Home (Part 2), Broken By The Hurt, All I'm Saying, Pressure's On, Just Like Fred Astaire and Sit Down followed by an electric set of Heads, What's It All About?, Curse Curse, Ring The Bells, Five-O, All Good Boys, How Hard The Day, Laid, Moving Car, Picture Of This Place, Nothing But Love, Extraordinary Times, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), Leviathan, Sound, Come Home and Many Faces.
James' tour continues at 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.