James reached the half way point in their Lasted fortieth anniversary celebration tour with Orca 22 and the Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir with another sold out show in the imposing surroundings of Birmingham's Symphony Hall. Once again playing with the setlist to keep the show fresh and improvising within the framework of a thirty-nine person set-up, they delighted the crowd with a mix of old favourites from the start of their career right up to new material.
"Sssshhhh" Saul tells the crowd as the band and choir follow the orchestra on stage. A Friday night crowd could be more challenging than the weekday ones in terms of people drinking and wanting to party, but the Birmingham crowd generally is as respectful as the others have been on the tour even if the singing on the bigger hit singles is a little louder at times.
The orchestra strike up with the band and there's suddenly loud cheers as Tim appears in the stalls, lit up by a solitary white light, and sings Magic Bus moving through the audience, stopping to sing and dance to members of the audience fortunate enough to be sat in the aisle on his path. When he reaches the stage he comments on how much he loves the different atmosphere at a seated gig and people's uncertainty as they don't know what to do. The Shining follows and once again, led by Adrian's guitar, is one of the highlights of the night, a song that has in the past hidden its light under a bushel, but now with the orchestra amplifying the strings and the choir lifting the chorus, it's taken centre stage and whilst more well-known songs slide in and out of the set, this feels undroppable.
We're Going To Miss You builds to a crescendo, the choir taking over the chorus and making it their own as a few people around the fringes of the crowd stand up and join in. The unpredictability and improvisation in the set is shown by Tim signalling to stop the song and some of the choir continuing because they hadn't seen his signal. The camaraderie and inclusive spirit of the wider group means this isn't a problem - the willingness to fly by the seat of their pants gives the whole thing an added energy and excitement.
The next three songs - Space, Hello and Dust Motes - are prime examples of how Joe and the band in their song selection have veered away from the traditional orchestral gigs bands put on where they simply revisit their biggest songs. Space feels inclusive, the choir drawn in, the strings alongside the guitars vital to dictating the tempo of the song. Wayne from the choir and Chloe sing as Tim dances in front of the orchestra, urging them on. Hello and Dust Motes bring the pace down, the former starting with just Mark and Dave bathed in that simple white light with keys and drums before the strings come in and creating the aching heartbreaking tension for the duet between Tim and Chloe, who face each other and hold hands at one point, to sing this most beautiful poignant of songs. Dust Motes is introduced as lying on the bed catatonic considering forgiveness.
Laid gets the biggest roar of recognition it's had on the dates it's been played at so far. At the end Saul and Jim extend it slightly as everyone else stops. Tim admonishes Saul as a "naughty musician" to which he replies he wanted to hear Jim play bass as it's so beautiful. The two then joke that Saul never says anything nice and he's usually an arsehole and Jim says he's very self conscious and awkward as a result to which Tim says his ears have gone red. Saul tells us it's only a momentary lapse before describing the next song as "rubbish" whilst laughing. Say Something is anything but, Tim venturing out in the crowd, spotting his wife Kate in the crowd, pausing to sing to her then moving back. Andy steps forward into the spot vacated by Tim on stage, banging the tambourine and encouraging people to lose themselves in the music.
Ten Below is introduced as a song about "a crap time at school" and has also proved to be one of the undroppable revelations of the tour. The orchestra stand up as the song hits its final chorus, the brass kicks in and the red / blue / green light combination light up the stage to imperious effect. Someone shouts out "that was very good" from the circle, to which Tim asks for a translation before explaining that they are taking songs from all albums across forty years so it isn't a traditional James set and it's an unusual ride. Nothing But Love starts with four of the choir down the front doing the harmonies, the song almost crashes under its own weight at one point there's so much going on, Tim leans back as it hits the breakdown and lets out a huge sigh, lost in the moment as more people stand up and sing along.
"Setlist change, Joe's choice, we don't have an encore now" Tim tells us as the first half of the set finishes with a rousing version of Tomorrow. Whilst the stars of these shows are mainly the ordinarily lesser celebrated songs in the set this version captures the essence of the original and shines new light on it, in many ways making the impact more powerful than the original.
The orchestra come out first after the interval, followed by Tim who asks them where Joe is before saying an orchestra is useless without a conductor, like a bus with no driver. He tells us a joke, that isn't about penguins going to the zoo, about the difference between an orchestra and a bull. The bull has horns at the front an arsehole at the back. Joe walks on stage, grabs the baton that Tim's used to conduct the orchestra through a part of Ravel's Bolero and retorts that's it's just as well this band has an arsehole at the front too. Sit Down starts the second half with a politely raucous singalong, stripped down to just strings and Adrian playing guitar right at the end, Tim turning the mic on the audience at points. At the end Tim and Joe hug.
Tim relents on the no phone rule again for Love Make A Fool. The choir and orchestra clap over the intro making it feel even more joyous and uplifting. Whilst this tour is predominantly about looking back at forty years, it's a reminder, as is the conclusion of the evening, that James is still a living breathing entity making new music and not standing still. Beautiful Beaches, the big single from the last album All The Colours Of You, underlines that point as well as the versatility of James songs to be moulded and crafted many different ways because of the underlying quality of the songwriting and the way in which they're created from improvisation which allows them to be reinterpreted man different ways. It ends with a violin solo and vocal harmonies.
Moving On is dedicated to those who've lost people in the last few years and proves the point just made once more. Stretched out with extended intro and outro, the former with Jim's bassline distorted and Saul's violin, the latter with vocal harmonies, there's plenty of people in the room for whom this song has meant a lot as they've grieved someone and the roar at the end is possibly the loudest of the night.
The next six songs are a real journey through some of the deepest parts of James' back catalogue. The Lake might have been a b-side to the Laid single back in 1993 and only resurfaced for the previous orchestra tour in 2011, but it's the highest of highlights on this tour. Starting with Adrian's guitar, the orchestration is rich and luscious and Tim's vocals really express the love he has for this song. Alaskan Pipeline is a similar deep-buried treasure that Joe has rediscovered, a long extended intro with Saul and Jim seated, the detail in their playing cutting through the crisp attentive atmosphere created by the crowd and really hitting home before it finishes with Wayne from the choir down the centre in front of Tim, who's as enraptured by his voice as the rest of us.
It's then a trip all the way back to the 1980s for a trio of songs. Johnny Yen aside, it's rare for James to go back to Stutter and Strip-Mine given the wealth of songs at their disposal and the fact that only two of their current line-up played on those records. The response to Riders and Medieval, and the band's obvious joy at it, means they've barged their way in and the crowd, who may be less familiar with them, respond naturally to the magic that's created on stage. Whether it's the orchestra filling the space that the four-piece slimline James of the 1980s left in the song, Joe's arrangements that has that lift that great music that gets you the first time always gives you or the choir's "we are sound, we are sound, we are sound" mantra that's as earworm as anything James have ever done on their more commercially successful records, the songs are a triumph.
Hymn From A Village is more familiar even if it is the oldest song in the set tonight, having featured on The Best Of and at times in sets since the reunion in 2007. It starts with Andy on trumpet up on the balcony before the song kicks in and once again the orchestra fill in the spaces. Debbie's drumming perfectly captures the energy of the original despite her not being born until eight years after it was released.
Someone's Got It In For Me is another song that hasn't been played since the previous orchestra tour in 2011. It's a song that thrives and blossoms in this environment in a way, if memory serves well, that it never did in the standard show. The strings accentuate the sadness and helplessness of the lyrics, the guitars at the start as Saul and Adrian combine from either end of the stage create the tension and Tim loses himself completely in it.
The main set finishes with Sometimes, the choir coming down to the front of the stage as the song builds and takes twists and turns. The crowd singalong isn't unexpected, but the magic is the route it gets there and then how it unfolds once it does. The choir take over then drop out, the orchestra and drums dip in and out and somehow it all finishes at the same time. The crowd are on their feet by this point, unified with the band in celebration of one of their most enduring songs.
The lost encore is restored with Born Of Frustration, only be played for the second time on the tour. The reworking isn't as radical as what's gone before as is the case with many of the big hits in the setlist, not that anyone in the audience minds. Those that have stayed seated get to their feet, whether it be the energy of the song or simply the fact they can't see. They stay there for the finale of All The Colours Of You and Many Faces, the night finishing in almost chaos as the singalong to Many Faces comes to a crashing halt as Joe signals the orchestra to stop playing as Tim signals them to continue back round. Everyone smiles and laughs, with thirty nine on stage and Joe having his back to Tim, it was inevitable that something like this would happen at some point. This is James, they fly by the seat of the pants in a normal gig environment let alone here and their audience would prefer this to the sterile rote fashion performance of other bands.
James played Magic Bus, The Shining, We're Going To Miss You, Space, Hello, Dust Motes, Laid, Say Something, Ten Below, Nothing But Love, Tomorrow, Sit Down, Love Make A Fool, Beautiful Beaches, Moving On, The Lake, Alaskan Pipeline, Riders, Medieval, Hymn From A Village, Someone's Got It In For Me, Sometimes, Born Of Frustration, All The Colours Of You and Many Faces.
The orchestra tour calls at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (May 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.