Monday 8 May 2023

James - Liverpool Philharmonic - 7th May 2023

Night nine of fifteen of James' Lasted 40th anniversary tour with Orca 22 orchestra and the Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir headed to Liverpool, scene of many of their most memorable gigs in the late 1980s as they broke for the first time, for a Sunday night set that became the longest and most celebratory of the tour so far.

"There's so much going on, with post-Coronation comedown and Eurovision, this is going to be a mellow evening" Tim tells us, laughing when acknowledging that they figured any reference to the Coronation would be greeted with boos. The heat is pretty fierce in the imposing Philharmonic Hall, which isn't graced with the air conditioning of previous venues on the tour, but that heat seems to drive those on stage and latterly those in the crowd on and helping to recreate the hot sweaty feeling of a gig even with the restrictions that seats place on movement.

They start with Dream Thrum, which Tim says at the end is the first time that they've played it on this tour and it's a way of getting the adrenaline going for those on stage at the start of the night. Adrenaline might take the room away later in the evening, but the early part of the show is about demonstrating the band, orchestra and choir's mastery of the more subtle and demanding songs in this collaboration. Alaskan Pipeline is haunting and ethereal, Tim losing himself in letting his body immerse itself in the music so much that he almost misses coming in. One of the most striking aspects of this tour is the vocal interactions, first here with Tim and Chloe and then Chloe and Wayne from the choir who comes down to the front. 

Dust Motes and The Shining continue this, the audience totally respecting the setlist choices and listening, Tim later refers to their being a reciprocal feedback loop between them and the audience. The silent listening fuels them as does the big celebratory moments later on. Space, a song they never quite captured on record, feels like they have perfectly here, it builds slowly before the momentum becomes unstoppable, Wayne joining Tim and Chloe down the front for the end section. Tim introduces him, then the choir and the orchestra and tells us that he'll do so regularly during the evening when he gets overwhelmed. And there's plenty of points where he, they and us get that most wonderful of sensations.

It's six songs in before we get our first single - and Seven and We're Going To Miss You are the two from the 1990-2001 commercial peak years, if you have to use that phrase to determine a band whose real peaks are far removed from a chart number next to a song, that didn't actually make the Top 40. It's probably an unintentional choice, made oblivious to the stat geekery that flips into our head from time to time, but it's also a reminder of how many brilliant singles they did release alongside the really big ones that come later in the evening. On the latter Tim dances to the double bass that's down behind him and besides Joe and the songs finishes with the choir on their feet adding their voices to the choirs of eight and two thousand that have picked up the song's concluding mantra. You sense at this point the audience is ready to blast off.

James don't play that game by the rules though. Hello is perhaps the most magical and beautiful of all these collaborations - a song that doesn't stand out in its recorded form undergoing a Cinderella-like transformation into the most beautiful princess. It's tender, full of intricate detail that the venue's sound accentuates, whether it be when Tim and Chloe duet to a background of strings and Mark's keyboards and the softest of drums, or when the four women from the orchestra line up alongside Tim and Chloe at the end and harmonise through the last minute of the song to awe and wonder from those seated in front of them.

Ten Below picks the pace back up as the first of three faster numbers to take us into the interval, the orchestra standing at the end as the lights are turned up and collide with the drums as Tim grabs his megaphone and urges the orchestra on.  Say Something has everyone on their feet, Tim resisting the temptation for once to come out amongst us. Often he does this to find connections, but tonight there's no need, that connection is already made, genuine and real as two thousand people join the thirty-nine on stage. Musically they're still playing with the arrangements, at one point in the verses it drops down to just cellos and a few other string players but that just makes the chorus hit even more powerful.

The first half finishes with Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), only making its second appearance on the tour, Saul describing it as the "national anthem of James" to cheers. Debbie comes out from behind her drum kit to dance with Tim and then to urge the audience on, whilst Tim's so lost in the music he misses coming in at one point but Joe and the orchestra, fully tuned in to this, simply take it round and back to where he does. The glue that has bound these three bodies together has stuck permanently now.

Going outside for air and coming back in makes us realise just how hot it is inside the Philharmonic Hall and the sense of anticipation for the second half has been really ratcheted up by the ending to the first. James don't just take the easy route of churning out an orchestrated best of though. After joking they've all needed a lie down because of their age and hoping that everyone has picked up some merchandise, Saul tells us they're going to play another song that hardly anyone knows. That's probably doing the audience a disservice given the response to Magic Bus, a song that loses nothing by having Tim on stage rather than prowling the audience. That visual spectacle is replaced by focus on the song itself, the dramatic pauses punctuated by strings.

As has happened on previous nights Tim relents on the request to keep phones in pockets for Love Make A Fool, the new song that has been extracted from the demos for the next record by Joe for this project. With choir and orchestra clapping along, the birth marks of the song are still visible, but that gives it a sense of thrilling urgency and freshness and a reminder that James are still creatively very much a living and breathing entity however many of them there are.

Tomorrow has the crowd back on their feet, Tim dancing and urging the orchestra on, Chloe dancing with Debbie and Andy, resplendent in his fascinator to match his white dress, moving centre stage and blasting out trumpet on a song that he didn't play on originally. As Tim delays opening Beautiful Beaches, waiting for the moment where the buzz and energy dissipates for him to be able to feel the stripped down vibe of their last album's key single, we get a few seconds to calm down ourselves.

Moving On is dedicated to those who've lost people in the last few years and looking round the room and seeing some tearful responses you understand how this song hits home and hard. The emotion in Tim's voice over Jim's distorted bass and the strings can be heard crystal clear, this stripped down arrangement, like many of the recorded sessions, actually makes the song even more powerful as the emotions are much rawer and closer to the surface. 

There's a setlist discussion as it seems that Saul has a different one to Jim and Tim. Saul jokes that they're not going to play Laid because it's rubbish, but The Lake instead. The b-side usurps the a-side that it came from here. The Lake perfectly captures the magic of this whole collaboration in one song, if we had to choose just one from this to demonstrate it. The magic of the original is augmented by the strings, by the choir's harmonies and Adrian's guitar work.

Laid does get played next and isn't rubbish. Tim jokes at the end that the audience didn't know what to do with and wanted to dance, but the slow stripped down version which always threatens to speed up but never does creates a real anticipatory tension held together by Jim's bass and Saul's acoustic guitar lifted by the soft dancing strings.

Medieval and Hymn From A Village together are the oldest two songs in the set, both described as Tim as peaks from the 1980s. If you didn't know where it came from Medieval could be from any point in James' career from then to now. Its "we are sound, we are sound, we are sound" mantra is as potent and uplifting as any of their better-known hits and being sung by the choir and orchestra, who are completely immersed in this project at a level that their 2011 contemporaries, without being critical of them, never quite achieved, is one of the most magical moments of the night.  Hymn From A Village has Andy on the balcony for an extended trumpet intro that has the band standing and watching like the rest of us, Tim's subtle hand gesture at the end betraying his love and admiration for his band mate. Hymn is fast, frantic and full of life, like the band itself absolutely unfazed by its age. An audience member in the front row who's lost himself in dancing is invited up on stage to do so with Tim.

Someone's Got It In For Me starts with Saul and Adrian at either end of the stage with just two electric guitars and the song builds in layers before erupting into glorious cacophony in the chorus. The lighting on this tour has been fairly minimal, allowing the focus to be on the music, but it's as critical a part of creating the atmosphere and moving with the music. Their insistence on developing and working on songs as the tour progresses is evidenced by Tim taking a back seat in the second half of the song and Justin from the gospel choir taking over. It's a measure of the trust, love and respect between them that James are letting go a little more on this tour and that the other musicians are responding in kind.

Sometimes is a glorious raucous singalong, taking off at different points, improvising and going with the flow of the moment, whether that be the choir leading in the chorus, them dropping down and the audience taking over and finally the string section bringing it to a close when the voices drop out. The song's racing beat is replaced by strings and keys, but the slowing of the pace does not impact the connection it makes and the sense of community it creates. Tim tells us there's too many of them to go off, so four of the choir come down to the front for Nothing But Love, again the orchestra on their feet singing along with a sense of real joy in their faces. It feels like everyone on stage is feeding off someone else and the energy in the room and it becomes an ever increasing circle.

They do leave the stage then, the orchestra remaining there even though we're past the advertised quarter past ten finish. Sit Down is stripped of its comic Bolero intro and those on stage are threatened with being drowned out by two thousand voices. The song has a lot of poignancy here, as it was a Royal Court show where the audience first sat down to it and had Larry in floods of tears. Tonight no one sits down, but thirty four years on that sense of unity that underpins the song, and for all its overexposure still is at the core of its importance to so many people including the band, still shines brightly.

All The Colours Of You and Many Faces remind everyone that James are still making vital music even forty years into their existence. The energy and passion still runs through their veins as much now as it ever has as they refuse to rest on their laurels and the weight of their back catalogue as many of their contemporaries do. New music is put front and centre even in this collaboration and celebration. The singalong of Many Faces at the end with the choir lined up at the front of the stage and the audience on their feet is as powerful as anything that's gone before.

You sense that they would stay up there all night and go through all thirty-five songs they've played at some point in these shows and soundcheck if they could, but Tim says they can't leave us without one more song because people (and they, clearly) want to party. Born Of Frustration brings the night to a close with a bang before they take their well-deserved bows. Tonight was different in many ways from the eight shows before it, a more celebratory uplifting evening without watering down the majesty and beauty of the collaboration between band, orchestra and choir.

James played Dream Thrum, Alaskan Pipeline. Dust Motes, The Shining, Space, Seven, We're Going To Miss You, Hello, Ten Below, Say Something, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), Magic Bus, Love Make A Fool, Tomorrow, Beautiful Beaches, Moving On, The Lake, Laid, Medieval, Hymn From A Village, Someone's Got It In For Me, Sometimes, Nothing But Love, Sit Down. All The Colours Of You, Many Faces and Born Of Frustration.

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 Manchester O2 Apollo (May 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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