Monday, 14 December 2020

James - Live In Extraordinary Times


James have released their first live video since 2002's Getting Away With It Live DVD of one of their December 2001 farewell shows in Live In Extraordinary Times. The DVD (included as part of a deluxe photobook edition) and digital download capture highlights of shows in Philadelphia and Madrid in summer 2019 as part of their tour in support of their Living In Extraordinary Times album whilst the live album across 2cd, vinyl and digital also contains songs from their Manchester Arena show in 2018. With more than half the tracks across the package coming from their last three albums, it's a living document of a band unafraid to push the envelope and refuse to rest on their laurels.

The Getting Away With It video is a good comparison point to start with when considering Live In Extraordinary Times. That DVD was a big arena production and whilst it's a hugely impressive statement of just how big a band James had become (and still are), it lacked in parts the intimacy and challenging nature of their live shows and the band's steadfast belief in their ability to continue to create songs that excite them and communicate with their audience. Seven of the twenty-two tracks come from the Living In Extraordinary Times album (with an eighth on the CD and vinyl audio versions) whilst its predecessors Girl At The End Of The World and La Petite Mort provide a couple each. With Stutter dating back as far as 1982 sitting alongside older band favourites like Five-O and PS, the centrepiece of their Laid album, and English Beefcake, the big hit single tracks that made them their name have to fight to justify their inclusion. And there's plenty of big hitters (S** D***, Born Of Frustration, Ring The Bells, Sound, Say Something, How Was It For You, Just Like Fred Astaire to name a few) missing that would be first on the set list for many bands of lesser ambition.

The Madrid part of the DVD is where much of the older material sits, but it's only old in name. The opener Five-O, soars, lifted by violin, trumpet, three sets of backing vocals and the band's philosophy of playing songs where they can improvise within the basic framework of the track. Waltzing Along is invigorated, one of their simpler songs that sees long periods out of the set until they feel they can do it justice. It sees Tim out on the barrier, falling onto the front rows. At points you feel he's going to come out through the screen and it's here where the less is more feeling that runs through both live shows here becomes evident. The more discreet nature of the filming, whilst giving less "big shots", makes the band less aware of being filmed once they settle into their flow and this makes the whole thing more intimate and authentic like you're in the room rather than watching an arena show. Moving On has become something of a modern James classic, the ones that upset people when they're left out of the set. 

Broken By The Hurt, which only made the deluxe version of Living In Extraordinary Times, is an absolute revelation and possibly the highlight of the entire package. Cello, trumpet and a simple acoustic guitars and keyboards create an eerie melancholy that perfectly echo Tim's painfully sad lyrics which are given emphasis by Chloe's added vocals. The Spanish audience stand in awe save for the odd shuffle and nodding head as it builds so so slowly. She's A Star is stripped down with the same instrument set-up without drums, accentuating the song's sentiment as the cello replaces the slide guitar and allowing Tim to demonstrate he can still reach the higher notes.

Stutter could tell the story of the band. Never released in studio format, it features on a grainy video from the Hacienda in 1982, forms the finale of their landmark 1990 G-Mex gig that made up the Come Home Live video and here it shows the band's wilder side in a wall of white light, multiple drums including Saul finishing the song battering Chloe's guitar while Tim takes over Mark's keyboards as he joins Dave on his riser. It defies the conventional song structures for which James are best known, but this song really captures the ethos the band has always lived by - hence why they still play it. Feet Of Clay is far less complex, its beauty in its simplicity, a complete contrast to what's gone before it, the subtleties of Adrian's guitar (there's a moment when the chorus drops back into the verse in particular), Andy's trumpet and Chloe's vocals capture something that you can never really do with a studio recording when you're striving for perfection and have multiple takes at it.

Leviathan is the type of glorious anthemic song for which James were known and can still produce - a hit single in a parallel universe, one that's more habitable than the one we're in right now. Keyboard-led, the exhortation of "fucking love, before they drop the bomb make sure you get enough" and the build before the chorus explodes into life has the heart pining for the moment we can share this experience again in a room of like-minded souls. There's almost silence in the room as Tim, stood astride the barrier, drops down to a whisper before the final chorus. It's moments like this that you know keep the band excited and alive and not some heritage act going through the motions. English Beefcake, almost lost at the time of release as the band broke up in 2001 with the Pleased To Meet You album, is thankfully brought out from behind the sofa and, led by Saul's violin, done justice and threatens to steal the show. As many long-term James gig goers know, the best moments aren't the obvious ones.

Many Faces, from Living In Extraordinary Times, has become a real focal point of the set. There's little of the between song interaction on this edited version of the show, but importantly the song being written as a response to Trump wanting to build a wall and his divisive policies is explained by Tim. The crowd are almost too eager to sing the song's unifying message of "there's only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here" and whilst Tim is lifted around the crowd on a sea of arms, two thousand Spaniards repeat that until he makes it back to the stage and lies on his back on the walkway. 

Sometimes, James' biggest song on the Iberian peninsula, almost brings the house down, and whilst it's the one song the band never drop, the magic of it never seems to fade as the multitude of voices rise again to sing the "sometimes when I look in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul." Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), again almost lost in the band's 2001 break-up, sends the crowd wild, particularly when Tim goes out to the side of the venue on an elevated section and dances above the sea of arms reaching out to him. This connection is vital to the James live experience and something that makes them stand out from the bands that stay static on stage and give a performance rather than something interactive. The band take to Tim's walkway at the end to thank the crowd who sing their traditional "ole ole ole ole" chant of appreciation. There's something about James outside the UK and the response they get that fires them on -perhaps the pressure of expectation being less than back home.

The Madrid section of the show finishes with Come Home and a stage invasion. People dance, phones kept in their pockets to experience the moment rather than to capture it in a picture. There's grainy footage of them at the Apollo in Manchester in 1989 when something similar happens to (the then not a hit) Sit Down, Tim lost in a joyous sea of bodies while the rest of the band do their thing. That thirty years on they can still create moments of magic and pure joy like this is testament to their ability to connect with people and as the final shots scan the crowd, it's clear that this isn't just with their generation but younger ones too.


The Philadelphia section of the DVD was recorded just a month earlier as the band kicked off a US co-headline tour with Psychedelic Furs. It's a very different type of performance from the band - fuelled by anger at the unfolding social crises that engulfed the US at the time and the response of the now ex-president and his supporters to it. It's a much more raw footage too in keeping with the show itself. At points it reminds us of R.E.M.'s Road Movie (one of the greatest live performance videos ever in our view) in that being the antithesis of the big arena production makes it much more compelling viewing. 

Hank, full of drum-driven rage, kicks off a set of three Living In Extraordinary Times, the constraints of a set just over an hour not dulling the band's natural instinct to want to show their new material to an audience who won't have seen the band as frequently as their European cousins. It ends with the anger visible in Tim's expression and delivery as he takes the knee at the end of the song with drumstick raised in the air. What's It All About is one of their journey songs, taking a winding path to its conclusion with a myriad of moods and pace, the instinctive nature of the band's musical interaction enabling them to forge something that feels very organic. Heads starts with a barrage of hand claps and wild percussion as it rails against "the white American dream" and the equalities that come from that. It's very prescient for the times we find ourselves in and the way it's been filmed gives you the sort of buzz you get by being in the room.

There's little of the between song chat on the DVD, saved for pointed moments like when Tim asks for quiet at the bar for the next song, apologising first for having stirred things up with Heads, because the next song is about "someone who died." All I'm Saying is a brave setlist choice in a crowd that might not necessarily be theirs because of the co-headline nature of the show. The cello, violin and keyboards create an atmosphere that has you involuntarily welling up when combined with Tim's words to his departed friend and mentor. 

"This is a sexy song from the new album" introducing Picture Of This Place changes the mood. Drums, guitars and trumpet take control from the strings, Tim takes his life into his own hands surfing out over the crowd as the song stops and then crashes back into life. You sense how much more they buzz off playing these songs than the better known older hits.

P.S. from Laid slows the pace back down again if not the intensity. There's slide guitar from Adrian, luscious strings from Saul as the rest of the band stand stock still then Saul and Tim move to play / sing to each other. It's moments like this where James really do stand out from their contemporaries, improvising, making unconventional setlist choices and living in the here and now. As the songs comes to a close, Tim signals to the others to play softer to allow Saul's violin to take centre stage and then kneels and improvises lyrics.

"Let's do Tomorrow" is a signal for them to turn the pace back up, the setlist often having options on it to decide on dependent on how they feel on stage. Tim clambers up onto the balcony, walking round on a shelf next to the rail up above the crowd, one wrong move away from a fall. The song finishes with Tim stranded up there - "How do I get back? I'm like a fucking cat up a tree" provides an unintentional moment of comedy. He doesn't bother going back to the stage, working his way through the crowd as their biggest US hit (and most streamed Spotify track) Laid kicks in, ending up downstairs stood on the bar before making his way back to the stage. There's a magical intimacy to this section of the DVD that sadly we don't get to experience too often in the UK.

The DVD finishes with one song from their 1998 Manchester Arena shows that underlines that difference. Attention is a band favourite, a song of three distinctive sections that's a duet between Tim and Chloe for the first part before stopping dead save for Mark's keyboards as the others turn to face him before exploding back into glorious life. The big arena production and the huge crowd give a sense of the other side of James that will be more familiar to more casual observers of the band.

Accompanying the DVD in the photobook is a series of stunning photographs by the band's tour photographer Trust A Fox amongst others and an insightful piece by Simon Goddard on the album and tour accompanied with interviews with Tim and Jim.  Thirteen tracks from the Madrid and Manchester shows are pressed to two pieces of blue vinyl (a standalone yellow vinyl version is also available) and two CDs featuring 23 tracks from the 2018-19 tours (not necessarily the DVD versions although we haven't completed forensics on which ones yet) - both include Extraordinary Times that doesn't feature on the DVD. 

Live In Extraordinary Times is a beautifully presented package that has clearly been a labour of love for a band that is fiercely proud of their live performances. It's in the flesh that they come alive and dismiss all the lazy perceptions of them as a band. The choice of songs here alone does that. Whilst it's almost impossible to recreate the thrill of a live concert on a shiny disc, this DVD captures a band at the peak of its power - as their Come Home Live video did back in 1990. The Philadelphia concert is the most powerful visual representation of the band they've ever released. It's an absolutely essential document to understand one of the country's most misunderstood and underappreciated bands in their most natural environment.

Live In Extraordinary Times is available on Photobook (with DVD, 2cd, 2 blue LPs plus digital download), double yellow vinyl, double CD and digital download of the DVD/CD content exclusively from the band's official store.

James' official website can be found here. They are on Facebook and Twitter.  Some of the band - TimAndy and Dave - are also on Twitter.

They play 2021 festival dates at Glasgow Playground Festival (July 30) and Deershed Festival (31) before a UK and Ireland tour supported by Happy Mondays calling at Leeds First Direct Arena (November 25), Birmingham Utilita Arena (26), Cardiff Motorpoint Arena (28), Glasgow Hydro (30), Dublin 3Arena (December 1), Manchester Arena (3) and London Wembley Arena (4).

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.

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