Wednesday 26 April 2023

James - Brighton The Dome - 25th April 2023

James opened their tour with the Orca 22 orchestra conducted by Joe Duddell and the Manchester Inspirational Voices Choir in front of a reverential seated audience at the resplendent Brighton Dome on Tuesday night. Reinventing and reworking songs from their earliest releases right through to a brand new song recorded for this project, they delighted the audience with hits, rarities and a few surprises along the way.

It's twelve years since James last toured with an orchestra and choir, a series of shows that they failed to record for posterity and as a record of how special those shows were which have gone down into folklore. With the band celebrating the fortieth anniversary of their first release Jimone on Factory Records, the band have reconnected with Joe Duddell for the recording of an orchestral album Be Opened By The Wonderful, recorded at Blueprint Studios earlier this year ahead of this tour.

Before the band come on stage, Tim's voice is played over the speakers asking people to keep their phones in the pocket, which the vast majority respect, allowing the performance to be observed without having to dodge phones being held aloft to capture snippets of video that will be watched one and then kept until space is required on the phone and then deleted. We took one photo as the band took their vows and that was it, but the camera would have been a distraction with so much going on.

The night starts with a stripped down Laid, probably the quietest most subdued moment of the whole evening. The normal rabble-rouser is replaced by a taut tense version with strings and no drums. It's a popular choice from a familiarity perspective, but gives little away of what's to come. Tim tells those that were expecting hits a few songs in that they might be disappointed, but to stick with them.

The first half of the evening does feature some of the more unpredictable choices even for those familiar with the 2011 setlists. Dust Motes benefits from the gospel element of the choir which gives lift to songs throughout rather than merely being a group of backing vocalists. They combine with Chloe to wonderful effect throughout. The Shining is where the evening really takes off, the first time the orchestra come in as the chorus hits feels like the heart being restarted and the lift it gives the song is uplifting and a reminder of just how special this combination is as well as a taster for what is to follow. The improvised nature of James' songwriting gives Joe plenty of scope to play with these songs and he does just that. Lookaway was almost an apologetic single release for The Morning After mini-album when the label didn't believe bands of James' ilk made singles any more, but it has the vibrancy and freshness that has always characterised James' songs in the live environment and again the strings make the song dance.

We're Going To Miss You is similarly reinvigorated and once again the choir transform the chorus line that includes the song's title. The strings give it an even more menacing. Andy's disappeared, as band members do at points in the night, but he reappears on the balcony to play a segment of Dirty Old Town on his trumpet before the strings and Debbie's drums play out the duel that is Hymn From A Village. It might date back to 1982 or even earlier, but it's tribute to the timeless nature of their songwriting and the band's ethos of revisiting and reinventing both songs and themselves that it feels like it's fresh off the boat. Debbie takes over from Dave on drums as if to remind us that the song is older than her. Moving On is stripped down, lights are dimmed and the emotion distilled into a taut, tight version where the strings heighten the tension, the delayering of the original allowing the depth of feeling in the vocals, both Tim and Chloe's, to cut through the silence off-stage.

Hello is transformed into a duet between Tim and Chloe, the latter declaring it her favourite song in the programme. It's in these lesser known songs that the magic of this collaboration is at its strongest. Say Something follows with Tim out in the audience before standing on an empty seat and singing it up towards his wife Kate in the balcony seats. For the first time there's audible singalongs around us as people have sat and listened intently so far. Ten Below, from The Night Before mini-album, is another unexpected gem, and one of seven songs played that won't appear on Be Opened By The Wonderful. Again when the choir and orchestra come in together, it both feels like everything is being thrown at the song, but it makes perfect sense, the sound clear enough to hear it all come together in the mix.

The first half of the evening finishes with the newest song, Love Make A Fool, only revealed publicly an hour or so before doors so new to pretty much everyone in the room. It's got the James DNA running through its bones though and the strings in particular give it an energy and momentum that make it feel like truly special moment in the night and a fitting way to go into the interval.

The orchestra make their way back onto stage first where Tim joins them and picks up the baton. Reminiscent of when Charlie Chaplin picked up a baton and conducted an audience singing, the orchestra respond to him picking it up and moving it around as they play Ravel's Bolero. Joe makes his way onto stage and takes the baton off a sheepish Tim as the song changes from Bolero to Sit Down with just Tim and Chloe from the band on stage and the audience join in for the first time in the evening.

Beautiful Beaches has been a band favourite from their last album All The Colours Of You, which features much more heavily tonight than it does on Be Opened By The Wonderful. With the expanded possibilities of the orchestra and choir and the nature of the album's cut and paste production the songs lend themselves to this treatment and they are among the highlights tonight. Magic Bus starts with the choir singing the song's hook line before dropping down and building back to it. The band never really played this live when it was released so it's a welcome addition to the set. 

Tomorrow is greeted like an old friend and pockets of the crowd are on their feet. Whilst many bands would see this as an opportunity to just revisit their hits, James are not that band and with Joe having a history of not doing the obvious, it is potentially difficult for someone coming with an expectation that a band of this vintage would lean on their hits. Although you'd think they'd have worked James out by now.

There's four more songs before the next hit. Alaskan Pipeline could have been their swan song, the final song on the final album had they not got back together in 2007 and you can hear a pin drop out in the audience as its sombre haunting opening bars pierce the air. It ends with Chloe and one of the choir and Tim sat on one of the risers watching on. Why So Close is a cappella with Tim and four of the choir stood in a line at the front in a shorter version of the song from that debut 1983 release. Tim tells us he messed it up, but no one, other than those on stage, noticed or, if they did, minded.

The Lake, a b-side that should have been on the Laid album, but was left off, reportedly because the band didn't like the poetic nature of Tim's lyrics, is glorious. Thirty years on, it could have been written for this occasion, the brass and strings erupting into magnificent sound. The tension and angst in Someone's Got It In For Me is similarly magnified to the power of many as a song that felt restrained by the boundaries of a recording studio feels like it's had the defibrillator applied to it.

Sometimes is stripped right back at the start, a sole gentleman in the orchestra stood playing strings (we're too far away to tell exactly what it is and we failed music at school) before Saul takes on that mantle at the breakdown. The release valve on the audience is loosened though as everyone in the room joins in with an extended refrain as the drums and the rest of the orchestra and the choir kick in then drop down.

That's not quite the end of the main set. In typical James fashion the main set ends on a curveball, although expecting James to do the expected is always a mistake. Like Magic Bus earlier, All The Colours Of You's genesis makes them perfect material for Joe to work his magic on and you can envisage these songs evolving further as the tour progresses, particularly given the way in which the orchestra and choir seem ready to take on that challenge and immerse themselves into a thirty-nine piece version of the band. It merges into a refrain of Many Faces, where the choir vocals layer and layer on top of Tim and Chloe's to deliver the message that feels quite appropriate here.

The encore is typical James in choice. Nothing But Love is one of their most recognisable post-reformation singles. Like so much of what's gone before it, the choice of song is an inspired one, the moments where it lifts feels like the heart and mind reopening to new possibilities, a rebirth. They finish, Tim tells us, in true James style with a song from 1985 that most of us won't know. He's doing the audience a slight disservice here as the 1980s songs get as warm a reception as anything else on the setlist. With an army of drummers as floor standing drums are brought out and the repeated mantra of "we are sound" reverberating around the room, it's the perfect way to bring the night to a close.

Tonight wasn't technically perfect but in so many other ways it was absolutely so. James have endured for so long fuelled by an element of risk, of not being so rehearsed that you stifle creativity. This orchestral undertaking is that approach on steroids - high risk but massive rewards. We cried, we sat in awe, we gasped and we sang along, completely intoxicated by what was unfolding on stage in front of us. 

James played Laid, Dust Motes, The Shining, Lookaway, We're Going To Miss You, Hymn From A Village, Moving On, Hello, Say Something, Ten Below, Love Make A Fool, Sit Down, Beautiful Beaches, Magic Bus, Tomorrow, Alaskan Pipeline, Why So Close, The Lake, Someone's Got It In For Me, Sometimes, All The Colours Of You, Many Faces, Nothing But Love and Medieval.

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

The orchestra tour calls at Cardiff St David's Hall (April 26), York Barbican (28), Edinburgh Usher Hall (29), Glasgow SEC Armadillo (May 1), Newcastle City Hall (2), Sheffield City Hall (4), Birmingham Symphony Hall (5), Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (7), Manchester O2 Apollo (9/10), Blackpool Opera House (12), Nottingham Royal Centre (13), Bath Forum (15) and London Royal Albert Hall (17). They also play a festival exclusive orchestral show at Latitude Festival (July 23) as well as a show in the stunning setting of Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, Greece (July 10).

They also play non-orchestral shows at Swansea In It Together Festival (May 28), Wolverhampton The Halls (June 20), Bristol Sounds (23), Liverpool Pier Head (July 2), Halifax Piece Hall (7/8), Thessaloniki Moni Lazariston (12), Laois Forest Fest (21), Dundee Slessor Gardens (28), Y Not Festival (29), Darlington Arena (August 5), London Crystal Palace South Facing (11) and Jersey Weekender (September 3).

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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