Wednesday 10 May 2023

James - Manchester Apollo - 9th May 2023

James returned home to Manchester for the first of two nights with Orca 22 and The Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir for their first show at the city's legendary Apollo venue for twenty-five years. 

The first time James played Manchester Apollo was in December 1989 when they were on the cusp of their initial breakthrough, about to release Gold Mother and newly expanded to a seven-piece. The ensuing stage invasion during Sit Down, already released as a single on Rough Trade but yet to be the huge hit that shot them right into the public consciousness, was captured by Snub TV. The last time was in April 1998 with The Best Of having reached number one in the album charts. Tonight it feels like James are in similar celebratory mood, as this tour is to commemorate their fortieth anniversary, albeit in more refined mode with the orchestra and choir in tow.

What's immediately obvious from the opening trio of Dream Thrum, Dust Motes and The Shining is that this audience is here to listen, breathe and soak in the magic of this collaboration. On night ten of the tour each audience has been different, dependent on city, day of the week, size and shape of the venue and other factors unique to the venue. The vast Apollo stage means there's distance between the band, orchestra, choir and the audience and the tight knit intimacy of the Newcastle and Liverpool shows can't be recreated, but as this is James, that's no issue, they just take a different route.

From our vantage point by the mixing desk we notice new things we hadn't on previous nights. The lights on Dream Thrum follow the song, the blue lights heighten the lead into the "I've changed" line, Dust Motes has half the stage where the orchestra sit lit up with just a solitary spotlight on the other side lighting up Mark. It's subtle mostly, but it beautifully adds to the impact of the music. Tim had mentioned in the VIP soundcheck that despite the orchestra and choir being in place, there's actually more space to be heard and the depth and vulnerability in his vocals can definitely be heard on these first two songs. Tim changes the lyric on The Shining from "I found a lover" to "I found a wife" as this tour highlight starts to pick up the pace of the set after the restrained couple of songs that open the night.

They move on to more familiar territory for the casual fan with Seven and the tour debut of Just Like Fred Astaire which sees Tim take a leap off stage into the audience. The crowd response to these two is huge even if no one (at least in the front half of the stalls) is standing up and dancing at this point. They are very clearly listening and soaking this in though. Space feels transformed by Joe's arrangements and the build where one of the men from the orchestra comes down and sings the urgent "calling you to see through me" line that grows and grows until the song reaches its conclusion.

"You're quiet" Saul tells us, "that's a good thing, time for sleep" as the opening keyboard line to Hello kicks in accompanied by just drums initially with white lines shining down on Mark and Dave before switching to Tim and Chloe to duet. The silence of the audience is palpable, all focus on the stage as the four women from the choir come down for the song's final section. If any one song were to perfectly encapsulate how Joe's arrangements and the orchestra and choir have transformed James songs, this would be pretty high up, if not top of, the list.

Someone shouts for Waterfall, Tim stops in his tracks, asks him to repeat, then tells him "no, sorry mate" before adding that there will be a few thousand others disappointed by not hearing their favourite song. That is however one thing that isn't different from a more traditional James show - with around three hundred songs to choose from, you can't please everyone all the time. Ten Below might not top many lists, but it's a glorious underappreciated track from The Night Before mini-album that is belatedly getting its moment to shine on this tour. The dark lyrics of Tim's time at boarding school contrasts to the bold uplifting music that sees the orchestra rise to their feet and Jim applaud them at the end of the song.

It leads in to the trio of Say Something, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) and Nothing But Love that bring the first half of the set to its close. With the stage bathed in orange light, and the still seated audience singing along, quietly mind so as not to drown out the beauty emanating from the stage, the song about communication becomes even more poignant. More is less, but less then becomes even more, if that makes sense. They start to play Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) and Tim stops it, asking the crowd not to use their phones and not to clap along as it fucks up their concentration with so much going on. Saul contradicts him by saying clapping is fine, but it has to be in time with Dave, playfully saying he's happy to contradict Tim and says "fuck him". Tim laughs back and says "please do". The song becomes a celebration, still seated in the stalls, but with Tim holding the microphone out to the audience to sing along as the orchestra stands up for the finale.

The first half of the set finishes with Nothing But Love, a euphoric end that has some of the crowd towards the back of the stalls on their feet and a lusty singalong of the chorus before they leave to a rapturous response before the interval.

The second half starts with Tim appearing about two-thirds of the way back in the stalls, somehow despite his distinctive appearance going unnoticed until a light shines on him. He makes his way down the aisle singing Magic Bus, shaking hands with audience members as he does before stopping to dance in front of the first row seats and heading off through the bar area back to the stage. He apologises to the balcony for not going up there, but tells us there's only one way in and out and no one would be able to see him from downstairs. 

He thanks us for not using our phones because it allows a different type of intensity between them and the audience before telling us that we can use them for the next song - Love Make A Fool. Using the new song as the one people can film if they choose is a great idea because it's a demonstration that James are still a living and breathing entity making vital new music, something that those here just expecting the big hits might need reminding of.  From the audience and choir clapping over the upbeat vibrant intro to the euphoric exclamation of "we've got love, we've got love, we've got love, as much as you need" it's as celebratory and uplifting as anything they've done before.

They then take us back in time to 1985 and Medieval which Tim describes as a main song from that time and tells us that given the tickets for these shows sold out in minutes and that it's a celebration of forty years of the band they wanted to show us things that people might not have seen before. A stranger walking into the room wouldn't have been able to identify this as a thirty-five plus year old album track though, particularly when everyone on stage joins together in the repeated mantra of "we are sound" as the song comes to its conclusion and the audience roar is as loud as anything else tonight. Whilst they might not be on their feet dancing, this crowd understands what this is about.

Beautiful Beaches is stripped bare of the electronic elements on the album version, so sparse at points in the verses with just keys and strings that there's almost nothing there, transforming it into a completely different song that ends with the lead violinist and one of the choir at the front of the stage with Tim and Chloe stepping back. One of the most delightful things about this whole tour has been the way the orchestra and choir have grown into the spirit of how James work and have actively embraced it and helped create new magic from night to night.

Moving On is dedicated as previous nights to those who've lost people in the past few years. Its poignancy to an audience that is of an age that is likely to have experienced loss in some form is evident from the response it gets. It's followed by The Lake, a b-side that's a fond reminder of the days when a band's best work could often be found lurking on CD singles. Written thirty years ago, it could have been done so with tonight in mind had James the benefit of being able to tell the future. 

There's a setlist change before Someone's Got It In For Me, Tim explaining that this show is a piece of communication and they're trying to reach us. He asks if we have any questions and if we're still getting away with it, all messed up before the strings take over and elevate the majesty of this Millionaires album track.

Andy refrains from his usual foray up to the balcony, probably for the same access reasons as Tim explained earlier, for Hymn From A Village, but sits strikingly on the edge of the stage before Debbie's drums kick in and the strings reinvent the earliest song in tonight's set for its fortieth birthday where life feels like it begins. The choir stand and watch Debbie and the orchestra and dance along, losing themselves in the song even though it's one they're not participating in.

Tomorrow and Sometimes finish the main part of the set. A gorgeous aqua light illuminates the stage for the former, the sense of helplessness and loss augmented by the strings and brass as the orchestra once again stand and the back of the stalls get to their feet.  By the time Sometimes finishes, the whole stalls (and we imagine the balcony) are stood too, joining three and a half thousand voices as one singing the song's refrain. The choir, now at the front of the stage, turn with Tim to watch the orchestra's strings dance the song to its end, kneeling down and watching. "We love you" Tim tells us as they take their first bows and depart.

Tim wanders back on stage with the orchestra still seated and asks them where Joe is before commenting they're like a bus without a driver, he then conducts them as they play Bolero. "This is really easy" he says before adding "cushy job" as Joe returns and takes the baton off him. Bolero merges into Sit Down and the audience sing along to almost every word, stumbling a little when the original 1989 version lyrics "the wisdom that I seek has been found in the strangest places" are sung instead of the 1991 hit version in the second verse, but full service is resumed by the chorus with Tim stood and Chloe seated on a monitor. It may not have had the memorable stage invasion of 1989 but it's every bit as iconic a moment. 

All The Colours Of You and Many Faces complete the written setlist, a reminder of James' ability to create anthemic monsters still, the segue between the two is a real thing of beauty, transforming from the biting snipes at US politics under the previous president to a message of love, togetherness and union that the crowd sing back to them as the choir stand in a line at the front, the orchestra mouthing the words. At this moment it feels like James have swelled from a nine-piece to a thirty-nine piece by a process of osmosis.

The audience demand more, even from their sitting positions in the stalls, and Born Of Frustration, with the choir singing the "la la la la" section is soaring way to finish the night before they all take their final bows and leave us reflecting on a night that wasn't as celebratory as the previous show in Liverpool, but equally as full of magic of a different kind created by the audience's attention and listening.

James played Dream Thrum, Dust Motes, The Shining, Seven, Just Like Fred Astaire, Space, Hello, Ten Below, Say Something, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), Nothing But Love, Magic Bus, Love Make A Fool, Medieval, Beautiful Beaches, Moving On, The Lake, Someone's Got It In For Me, Hymn From A Village, Tomorrow, Sometimes, 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 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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