The James Lasted tour headed back into England on Tuesday night for a sold-out show at Newcastle City Hall with the nine-piece James augmented by Orca 22 and the Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir. A radically restructured set on the smallest stage and venue of the tour made for an intimate experience.
Newcastle City Hall probably wasn’t built for a night like tonight. The stage is so cramped that the most of the choir are brought forward in front of the drum riser while those in the band and conductor Joe are at risk of falling off the stage should they lose concentration at the front, the orchestra have been banned from standing up while playing for health and safety reasons and Tim’s deprived of the space to let loose and dance as he’d please.
These inauspicious conditions might, for lesser bands, create a problem. For an adaptable beast like James it gives them a challenge to which they rise. The inability of the choir to come and go between songs means they’re far more involved tonight and that opens up new possibilities whilst the difficulties of moving mean that the focus is even more on the music.
They start slow tonight, buoyed by the fact that the Glasgow audience on the last show betrayed their reputation by sitting and listening and appreciating the music rather than demanding a celebratory chaotic experience laden with hits. There’s no shouts tonight for the big-hitters that are missing - Laid, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) and She’s A Star have been played on the tour so far but all are absent tonight - just the willingness to listen to whatever is chosen to be played and absorb it.
As the band come on stage, Saul jokes that he and Dave were left behind then comments he’s come out in his best suit for the night and that it was the suit he was married in twenty one years ago and that he still fits in it before joking that he’s better at suits than marriages.
The opening trio of Dust Motes, Hello and Alaskan Pipeline demonstrate the beauty of this collaboration. As the tour progresses the sense of the three bodies merging into one is palpable, the improvisational spirit of the band spreading to the orchestra and choir who are willing participants. On Alaskan Pipeline Tim turns to the choir and has them sing the second verse rather than him. The harmonies at the end of Hello between Chloe and the band are so intertwined and magical, whilst the orchestra provide the delicate detail in the strings on these songs.
The orchestra don’t just do delicate though, the selection of the songs for the remainder of the first half of the show demonstrate the drama and tension that they bring, heightened by Joe Duddell’s arrangements and the way the orchestra have thrown themselves into this project with the same openness with which the band do every show. The build into The Shining and Lookaway’s choruses teeter on the precipice between total control and a sense of impending breakdown. That tension holds the audience’s attention, even if the songs might not be as familiar to them as the setlist would be at a more traditional James show which they’ve done several times in recent years in this same room.
Say Something is celebratory, a release valve for some from the challenging setlist around it. Whilst it’s sometimes a little “James by numbers” if such things exist, a surefire crowdpleaser, here it sounds reinvigorated. One of the most magical things about this tour has been the song selection, choosing what works best with the orchestra and choir rather than simply picking the singles. We’re Going To Miss You has stepped out of the shadow of bigger singles from its time, combined with the lighting that perfectly captures what’s going on musically. Ten Below and Riders may have been written a quarter of a decade apart and be never seen again in most band’s back catalogues, but here they’re two of the most exciting and vibrant rediscoveries. The former, about Tim’s time at the boarding Shrewsbury School - “people say school days are the best time of your life, mine were the most miserable” - fizzes and bursts into life whilst Riders is dark and brooding, the orchestra left to their own devices by Joe.
The first half of the set finishes with Tomorrow and Nothing But Love, both of which have the crowd up on their feet. The former’s frantic energy replaced by strings which have the same powerful impact but by a different method. Nothing But Love is positively evangelical, the gospel choir’s voices really coming to the fore and lifting it up and us out of our seats. It’s interesting to observe the audience’s reactions each night, some more reticent than others to join in, perhaps due to the band’s request for people not to take photos but to immerse themselves in the show.
The second half starts with Tim in the audience at the back of the stalls for Magic Bus, snaking his way down through the aisles and then dancing in the space between the front rows and the stage with the hugest of smiles across his face. The joy etched across the faces of the band at various points in the night is wonderful to behold. The scale of this operation means that it genuinely is being done as a celebration of their forty years rather than a financial money-maker. Someone’s Got It In For Me is a late replacement on the set for Space, decided in the interval, and starts with just Saul and Adrian on guitar before building, growing limbs and revealing the real drama and tension at the core of the song that often gets subjugated by the constraints of a recorded version.
Love Make A Fool starts with the audience and choir clapping along injecting it with a joyful energy that runs throughout the one new song James have included in this project. Its key line - “we’ve got love, we’ve got love, we’ve got love, as much as you need” feels like a tagline for this whole project. Forty years into their lifetime any other band might be resting on their laurels and the strength of their back catalogue. For James to do so would be their death knell.
Seven is gloriously uplifting and euphoric even if it is the one song that feels that the orchestra and choir don’t add as much to it as the others around it, testament more to the scale of Joe’s work on these songs. Of Monsters And Heroes And Men makes its tour debut, a rambling dark story that could be culled from mythology underpinned by Jim’s bass as he sits on the riser with a face of absolute concentration and immersion in the music. His fuzzed up bass and Saul’s violin combine on the opening to Moving On, a song that’s even more emotional in this stripped down form. Tim and Chloe sing to each other, before holding hands and turning to face the audience. Watching and listening to the interaction and genuine connection between the two of them is one of the highlights, and there’s many to choose from, of this whole tour.
The Lake, a b-side from the Laid album, is laying claim to be at the very top of that pile. It has everything that’s special about this collaboration distilled into one song. The band are all involved, the vocals are rich and deep, both in Tim’s lead and the choir and Chloe’s harmonies, and the tension in the music palpable as the atmosphere becomes more intense.
With Joe being a long-term fan of the band like us the revisiting of material from their Factory and Sire days of the 1980s before they broke through with Gold Mother in 1990 is really welcome. The treatments of Hymn From A Village and Medieval, and Riders earlier, lay waste to the lie that the four-piece James of that time didn’t write accessible songs. Hymn From A Village is preceded by Andy on the balcony playing a trumpet solo including a snippet of Dirty Town before the spindly 1985 single is transformed by strings and Debbie, who wasn’t born when the song was released, taking over drums. The choir turn and watch her completely lost in the music whilst the strings dance and provide the lush contrast to the rawness of the drums. Medieval is tribal, driven along by Dave and Debbie with Mark adding extra drums to create its powerful marching beat. As all the voices on stage come together for the “we are sound” refrain the orchestra are all singing along too.
The main set finishes with Sometimes and the crowd rise and find their voice as one as they take over the chorus line and make it their own. The magic in this song, which steadfastly refuses to be budged from the tail end of James sets, is that it demands to be allowed to follow its own path each night and the actors simply let it go with the flow. As Tim signals for the choir and band to drop down, the strings take over for one final flourish.
The orchestra remain on stage as Tim wanders back on and enquires as to where Joe is. He picks up the baton and conducts the orchestra through a section of Ravel’s Bolero before Joe reappears. Tim tells him that this isn’t one of their songs and Joe replies it’s better much to Tim’s amusement. It segues into Sit Down, stripped down to the bare bones of strings and more poignant and affecting as fifteen hundred people sing along. However as it reaches the “those who find themselves ridiculous..” line Tim holds the microphone out, but people sing different takes on it so he takes back control with a wry smile and they loop back that section again.
The night finishes with All The Colours Of You which merges into a section of Many Faces. Lit up in colour sequence the title track from James last album is a fitting song at the end of the set over what would for other bands be more predictable choices. Many Faces ends in the whole room singing “there’s only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here.” That message of unity feels quite apt given the night has seen musicians from very different worlds coming together and the outcome being greater than the sum of the constituent parts.
James played Dust Motes, Hello, Alaskan Pipeline, The Shining, Say Something, Lookaway, We’re Going To Miss You, Riders, Ten Below, Tomorrow, Nothing But Love, Magic Bus, Someone’s Got It In For Me, Love Make A Fool, Seven, Of Monsters And Heroes And Men, Moving On, The Lake, Hymn From A Village, Medieval, Sometimes, Sit Down, All The Colours Of You and Many Faces.
The orchestra tour calls at Sheffield City Hall (May 4), Birmingham Symphony Hall (5), Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (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.