Thursday 18 May 2023

James - London Royal Albert Hall - 17th May 2023

James concluded their James Lasted 40th anniversary tour with Orca 22 and the Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir with a celebratory sold-out show at London's Royal Albert Hall. An emotional evening that was in doubt up to the day of the show due to Tim Booth's illness turned out by an uplifting night of music from their earliest days right up to the current day.

With the previous two shows of the tour in Nottingham and Bath cancelled because of a virus picked up by James' front man Tim Booth which caused him to lose his voice, there was much trepidation in the arena as the stage time of 7.30 passed and we got closer and then past 7.45. Any fears were unfounded though as the orchestra took to the stage first followed by the choir and band although the front man was nowhere to be seen as the music struck up. 

A spotlight on the back of the arena seats reveals Tim at the back from which he proceeds through the aisle singing Magic Bus from their last album All The Colours Of You. Never played live when the album is released, it's completely reworked by Joe and the strings provide a real tension in the song, particularly in the pauses in the vocals. The crowd clap along as Tim makes it to the stage, the outro is sung by the choir rather than Tim, one of the subtle alterations they've made to songs through the course of tour, partly to keep the songs fresh, partly to protect his voice and partly to showcase the wonderful vocals and energy of the choir.

Beautiful Beaches, another from All The Colours Of You, a sign that this isn't a band prepared to rest on the laurels of the icon status to be bestowed on them at the Ivor Novello Awards the following day. Once again, this song, which Tim explains is about fleeing Californian wildfires, is stripped back to barer bones, creating space for the orchestra, the details and emotional clarity in Tim's voice and latterly the choir and lead violin to take centre stage. 

Those expecting hits, although there are few requests shouts other than annoying ones for Johnny Yen again, are left to wait until the end of the first half of the show as The Lake follows. A b-side that didn't make the Laid album in some act of folly, Tim dedicates it to the rabid fans who snapped up tickets for this tour within an hour. Starting with Adrian on guitar, it's the first of a trio of songs that show a different side to James' back catalogue than people normally credit them for. The orchestra add drama and passion to the original and the choir's vocals give it a lift into something spectacular. Dust Motes might not quite reach that height, but the Royal Albert Hall is silent as Mark's keyboards set the funereal tone of the song about trying to find forgiveness at the end of a relationship. The sparsity of the arrangements really accentuates the vulnerability of the lyrics and the way in which Tim sings them.

The Shining is a song that Joe's plucked from relative obscurity in the catalogue to a central point of the set, being played at all thirteen shows. The lift into the chorus is glorious and uplifting, the whole atmosphere of the gig being changed in the moment of the first one as if this song were written for this moment. It shows the magic that Joe has weaved with these songs and the joy on stage on performing it is palapable.

Seven is the first of the singles taken from James' commercial heyday of the early nineties. Tonight in the majestic surroundings of this building it feels even more powerful, the crowd up on their feet, earlier than most shows, possibly the relief of the show actually happening flowing out. Andy momentarily forgets his injury, a broken foot Tim tells us as he hands back his dropped crutch to go with the flu that's struck the camp during the tour that resulted in the cancellations. 

Most artists shed clothes as a show progresses, but one of the few signs of Tim's recent illness is him putting his coat back on for We're Going To Miss You, where the choir really come to the fore and do the heavy lifting as the song comes to its end, the instruments drop out and it's just the vocals repeating the line "here's a mirror with your name on, singing we're gonna miss you when you're gone." The joy and energy of the choir is really inspirational and you sense it flowing from them to the band and orchestra and it being reflected back, mirroring the energy transfer of the song but with positive impact.

Ten Below is dedicated to those who've had a "shit time at school, about 90% of us" and is another song not played live for years resurrected and revitalised for the occasion. It ends with the orchestra stood, Tim dancing in front on them urging them on. Saul jokes at the end "that James guy, he's half decent isn't he?"

Time for a setlist change and Moving On is added and preceded by Tim telling us that's there's too much death around so what we need is a song about death and how it feels to grieve. There's a lot of tears in the house for this one as the song does what James do best - capture the emotional ups and downs of everyday life and turn them into an exorcism of demons and a celebration of the good.  At the key moment Tim and Chloe sing together, holding hands although this does lead to the comical moment at the end of Tim asking for hand sanitizer for Chloe given his illness.

Say Something is often James-by-numbers, if such a thing exists, but with the strings leading the dance here, it's power and poignancy pierces the expectant Royal Albert Hall atmosphere and it feels like a moment of genuine connection and coming together between five thousand people. Tim jumps into the audience and sings part of the song on his knees to a gentleman seated in the aisle before dancing across seats with another he makes eye contact with. 

We have a moment when the opening bars of Born Of Frustration kick in and the hall rises as one from the front of the arena seats to the top of the rausing circle high up in the sky. The magic of the orchestra and choir colliding head-on with a big indie hit and somehow becoming more than the sum of its parts could describe this whole collaboration, but in this moment the only thing to do was lose yourself in it.

The first half finishes with another more recent song Nothing But Love. Four of the choir come to the front, followed later by their four comrades and sing the harmonies which Tim conducts. By the end the orchestra are on their feet again, five thousand voices singing in unison. It's a spectacular way to lead into the interval.

As the second half starts Tim joins the orchestra on stage on his own, saying "I'm first, I'm never first" before starting to conduct them in the Bolero and passing comment "he just stands here, it's not entertaining" as Joe makes his way on to the stage, passing Tim on the way to the mic to tell us "you don't want me on vocals" before taking control of the baton and starting Sit Down as the lights focus on the orchestra. This stripped down version takes a little time, the first lyric for most, to be recognised, but once it is it's sung with impressive gusto. Even stripped right down it still possesses the power and emotional reassurance that you're not alone that even it being overplayed and excessively focused on as representative of the band's forty years by itself cannot distill down.

Tim then tells us that there is a double album (Be Opened By The Wonderful) of some of these songs coming out in a couple of weeks. Next up is the new song that's been written specifically for it - Love Make A Fool. He then tells us that the request for people not to take photos and videos is relented for this one, but there's not the sea of phones you'd expect. If you needed any evidence that James are still alive and thriving as a band this is all the evidence you need - "we've got love, we've got love, as much as you need" could be a fitting subtitle for this tour.

We move from the newest song to one of the oldest, the military march of Medieval following it with the choir and Chloe mimicking the song's beat as the Strip-Mine track is transported three and a half decades and made to sound as fresh and invigorating as anything being produced today. It finishes with the choir and band singing the "we are sound, we are sound" refrain as the orchestra join in having stopped playing at this point. 

Hello takes things back down, a gorgeous aching song that they never quite captured the essence of on the recorded version, but here, transformed into a duet between Tim and Chloe with such connection that everyone else in the room could be invisible, it is again a show-stopping moment before it finishes with Chloe and the choir harmonising. Tim tells us at the end that the choir "do us in every night" and then introducing the orchestra.

As if to prove that point Someone's Got It In For Me sees Josh from the choir take over the chorus from Tim and everyone stops dead still and listens as his voices soars to the very furthest recesses of this iconic venue. Even if this was done to protect Tim's voice initially a few shows back when he was fighting through the illness, it's a happy accident that created something even more magical.  Alaskan Pipeline ends with Wayne from the choir and Chloe at the front singing together at the end of a song that has an extended intro that is spine-tinglingly haunting, another song that has been plucked from the catalogue and made into a central moment.

She's A Star has the crowd back on their feet where they remain for the rest of the show. The orchestra are the stars here on this one and getting a huge ovation at the end from both the audience and everyone else on stage. The song's uplifting message is accentuated by the strings as they build into the chorus. Just Like Fred Astaire and Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) might not have undergone the same type of transformation as much of the set around them, but their status as later first-edition James classics has been cemented well before now and the crowd are now completely lost in the moment. Tim playfully teasing "Albert Hall, be careful" at the end of the latter.

The main set finishes with the recent duo of All The Colours Of You, written in the pandemic and dedicated by Saul to the people getting here on boats. The Royal Albert Hall is lit up in multiple colours as the song hits the chorus and Tim loses himself in the music once more, illness replaced by adrenaline that will always see him through. It segues, courtesy of the choir clapping as the song changes, into Many Faces, fitting to finish because of the way the forty people on stage have been absorbed into one and then the crowd has joined them through osmosis to become one as well.

The encore starts with the oldest song of the night and the most magical defining moment of the tour. Hymn From A Village starts with Andy playing trumpet including a section of Dirty Old Town and the song still possesses all its ramshackle qualities that charmed early fans forty years ago, but never showing its age. It ends with Tim singing to Jim, a look of love in his eye that we hope one day we'll experience, Jim initially trying to play through ignoring it, but unable to but still managing not to miss a note. It made us well up. James have been together for forty years and there's been some absolutely shit times where they were on the brink of complete implosion with the relationship between these two at the centre of it, but now the love, respect and utter trust between them and the rest is so evident to see. 

Tomorrow and Sometimes bring the night and the scheduled end of the tour to its conclusion. Tomorrow feels like a cathartic explosion, the expelling of any last demons, the invitation for anyone not completely lost in the moment to finally succumb. Sometimes is almost undroppable even when it's been reinvented for this moment. The strings are gorgeously lush and revelatory at the start, as if the guitars were never there, the build into the chorus even more intense and when the choir come in and give it the gospel lift it strips away any remaining inhibition. Five thousand people join in as one as the orchestra and band drop out, Tim posing the question "how long can we sing this for?"  We might be still there had the orchestra not come back in for one final chorus before stripping back down to strings and the song and night's finale before they all take their bows and leave.

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

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

They 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).  The Bath and Nottingham dates that were cancelled are currently being rescheduled.

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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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this excellent and comprehensive review. It's so helpful to have this resource and be able to recapture how each song worked on the night. The only comment above I would take issue with is the suggestion that th Band never quite captured the essence of Hello. This is a song I have always deeply treasured, and whilst I'd agree that Tim and Chloe took it to an even higher level, I cannot accept that album version somehow fell short. For me both versions are outstanding in their own way.

    Meanwhile I am eagerly look forward to re-living the magical ive performance on their forthcoming double album Be Opened By the Wonderful!