James headed to the seaside on Friday night for a sold out show with Orca 22 orchestra and Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir. With Tim suffering with a cold a few adjustments had to be made, but these became happy accidents that gave new life and takes on some of the songs they'd been playing on the tour. A rich mix of hit singles and more obscure selections from their forty year back catalogue delighted an attentive audience that also sought to participate where possible.
It's a little later start than usual as the audience take their time finding their seats and there's a few latecomers as the orchestra take their seats and start to play as the choir and all but one of James take to the stage. Tim appears lit up on the balcony, joking later that the sight lines were a bit shit for this as half the stalls couldn't see him, but it's taking the gig to those who might feel isolated in the circle. He rests his foot on the balcony surveying the crowd below him and his band mates and the orchestra and choir on stage. They have to take the song round a few more cycles as he makes his way back to stage through the myriad of corridors backstage before emerging, bouncing and dancing over the final bars.
Dream Thrum and Dust Motes take the pace down a little and demand attention and the Blackpool audience mostly respond with the required respect and listening. Saul's violin coupled with the orchestra strings and the lift the choir give the chorus take centre stage on the former, whilst the latter allows us to hear the emotion in Tim's voice, heightened by the strain that the cold has put on it which give the words an added intensity, whether intentional or not.
Tim explains that Beautiful Beaches is about how he moved to America for fourteen years to experience the native culture and landscapes of California and how the last couple of years saw wildfires that meant every couple of weeks they were living with bags packed ready to flee. And then he wrote a jaunty pop song about it. The song finishes with Andrea, the lead violinist and Ellie from the choir down the front centre, haunting strings duelling with rich evocative vocals as the stage is bathed in orange and white light. The way the orchestra and choir have increasingly been given centre stage as this tour has progressed is one of the real highlights.
She's A Star is another example. To lessen the strain on Tim's voice, the choir and Chloe sing the chorus, but out of adversity often comes genuine beauty and it's the case here as the nine voices give the song a huge lift. The beauty of the released version is surpassed by this version. The Shining has been a surprise hit during the tour and again tonight it feels like it's been written for just this type of occasion. Seven has a false start as Dave tries to get his sticks and Joe laughs. As the song soars Tim comes forward to the edge of the stage and dances with a woman in the front row.
There's then a really emotional moment as Debbie steps forward to the microphone to tell us that her Dad passed away the night before after a long struggle with cancer. She tells us that there being so much joy in the room will help her celebrate him and that they're going to play her favourite song. We're Going To Miss You is another song that feels like this was exactly the moment it was written for, particularly when the instruments drop out and the song's chorus line is sung by Tim, the choir and half the band a cappella.
The first half of the set finishes with three singles. Born Of Frustration is tweaked as well to reduce the strain on Tim's voice, but rather than detract from the song, it creates a new trick of magic that we haven't experienced previously on the tour as the choir play an even bigger role. The crowd stand, Andy drops his crutches and plays trumpet at the front and Tim crouches down to soak in the moment before handing Andy his crutches back.
Say Something starts with some gorgeous harp and flute high in the mix, the celebratory chorus that the audience sing back, albeit at a volume that's respectful enough not to drown out those on stage whilst standing up. Tim loses himself dancing in the music. All the choir come down to the front for the final song of the first half - Nothing But Love. Andy dances with his crutches as the chorus soars in a celebration that sends the audience into the interval buzzing.
The orchestra return first after the interval followed by Tim who looks behind him and tells us it's embarrassing that he's on his own because everyone was right behind him. He picks up the baton and starts to direct the orchestra, playfully telling an errant trombone to "watch it" before telling us that conducting is "fucking easy" just as Joe comes back onto stage. Joe ignores the pretend insult and takes back control of Bolero dropping into Sit Down. The audience find their voice for the first time in the second half, other than the lyric change to the original 1989 version in the second verse which amuses a few older fans around us, whilst Tim sits down on the monitor soaking in the simple beauty of the connection this song makes.
He then tells us that we can get our phones out for new song Love Make A Fool, a song that has flourished on this tour as James songs often do as they continue to explore new possibilities for them post recording them at a point in time. The choir and orchestra participation in the clapping before they join in their prescribed roles shows just how united the three entities have become over the course of this tour.
Tim tells us that as it's their fortieth anniversary they've moved backwards and forwards through their back catalogue and that because the tickets were sold so quickly they assume that people are familiar with the whole of it. There's a subtle but touching moment where Tim places his hand briefly on the head of Jim's bass when he sings the line "shifted up one fret". There's lots of these little acts of appreciation between members of the band and with the orchestra and choir that really make this feel like special tonight.
Just Like Fred Astaire has chunks of the audience back up on their feet. It's one of the least changed songs from its original, but the lyrical content means that it hits home for many in the crowd and for those on stage (the song is about Tim meeting and falling in love with his wife Kate who is somewhere in the building).
Of Monsters And Heroes And Men hasn't been played much on the tour, but the last two nights it's been a genuine highlight even up against such stiff competition. With so many people on stage, it's incredible that so much detail can be heard, here it's trumpet and the interplay between strings and drums and then the build of the song, slowly increasing in pace as Tim recites the lyrics like he's telling a story before dancing as the brass section kicks in.
He jokes before Someone's Got It In For Me that we need patience as getting everything together takes time. It's worth the wait, the stage bathed in blue light as Tim sings the verse before Josh in the choir takes over for the chorus, standing at the front whilst Tim stands behind, slowly dancing and losing himself in the music before kneeling down. Andy's trumpet takes over at the end and again it feels like a song that they'd struggled to nail live in the past that Joe's intervention and the input of the orchestra and choir have made.
There's a few vain shouts for the likes of Come Home and Johnny Yen from enthusiastic drunks in the crowd, but what we get next is the most emotionally charged version of Hello, one of, if not the revelation of this tour. The lead violinist stands, Tim and Chloe stand facing each other, Chloe places her hand on Tim's chest and they step away from each other as the four women in the choir come down and join in the harmonies at the end of the song. This breaks the rules of an ordinary band / orchestra collaboration, but it's absolutely spellbinding.
Moving On is dedicated to anyone else who's lost anyone recently. Tim's cold, he's now wearing a scarf round his neck for the second half, means that Chloe and the choir sing the chorus and once again it gives a fascinating new slant on the song and makes the collaboration a deeper one.
The Lake had been taken out of the set for the second of the Manchester shows but is brought back in tonight. Starting with the spotlight on Adrian and before the stage is bathed in beautiful white light as the lift the song gets as the orchestra and choir come in at the chorus really feels like those on stage are elevating the song and us to a higher plain. It's probably the most magical moment of the night.
The last two songs of the main set have the audience on their feet again. Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) has been adopted as the national anthem of James and is sung with more gusto than the country's national anthem at an England game. Tim offering us the microphone to sing the "all messed up" part of the chorus before losing himself in dance. Sometimes is an exultant conclusion to the main set, the string arrangements building the tension and anticipation and making the crowd participation in the singalong of the chorus at the end before the band come back in feel even more of a communal celebration. Everyone on stage turns to the orchestra as their strings take over and lead the songs to its end.
There's no way anyone's leaving at this point though and the encore starts with Tomorrow, another song where Joe's arrangements capture the passion of the original without the need for the rock and roll guitars, the intensity in the way the strings build and build into the chorus. Everyone's on their feet, people break the filming request to capture a moment. All The Colours Of You and Many Faces are both a celebration and a reminder that James are still a live breathing organism making new music. These two songs sit naturally towards the end of the set despite the vast choice of potential songs to occupy this position. The lights change colour in time with the music for All The Colours Of You - simple yet perfect for the music. Many Faces is a song about union and celebrating our similarities - and on stage this is the passion and intuition of musicians from different backgrounds coming together as one.
"Let's do another one" Tim says as they take their bows. The man shouting for Johnny Yen hasn't given up yet, but he's never going to get his way. Top Of The World brings the night to a haunting close, Jim's bass and Saul's violin intertwining as the sparse desperate lyrics find a new poignancy amongst such exalted company. It's a predictably obtuse choice to take the celebration of the previous few songs and to soothe us before sending us out into the night. But this tour is every aspect of James' forty year career so it's a fitting way to end the evening.
The orchestra tour calls at Nottingham Royal Centre (May 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.