Friday 5 May 2023

James - Sheffield City Hall - 4th May 2023

James' tour with Orca 22 and the Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir headed to Sheffield on Thursday night for the seventh of fifteen dates on the Lasted tour commemorating forty years since their first release. Introducing a couple of new songs to the set for the first time and continuing their quest to change the setlist around to make each experience different, they delighted a reverential and respectful crowd with a mix of hits and deep cuts.

Another night, another song opening up the set. Laid starts the show tonight, not with the bang that usually accompanies one of their biggest crowd-pleasers but a slowed down, stripped-back version reminiscent of many a radio session with Jim and Saul taking the lead but augmented by the string section of the orchestra. Ordinarily Tim would be threatened by being drowned out by the audience with the imminent possibility of the song being speeded up and started again from the start, but tonight you can cut the tension and listening in the room with a knife.

That quiet is something Tim acknowledges at the end calling it the "sound of silence" before laughing that the silence is because he starts the next song Beautiful Beaches. It finishes with one of the violinists stood up playing a solo and one of the women in the choir singing harmonies over it. As this tour's progressed both orchestra and choir have immersed themselves deeper in the band's ethos of risk-tasking, more so than on the previous orchestra tour in 2011, and the results make this fascinating for anyone going to multiple shows. Even if they're playing the same song as other nights, it's not necessarily staying the same.

The Shining has become a real highlight of this tour, you sense the love the band have for this song as it's made a few appearances in the intervening years since it was a show-stopper on the 2011 tour., The lighting is beautifully subtle but accentuates the song's slow build into the minor explosion as the chorus kicks in.

Say Something has had Tim out in the audience most nights, but tonight he stays on stage searching for the connections with the rest of the gangs on stage. Red light floods the stage as the flautist at the back of the choir stands up and the crowd find their voice, quietly though, some mouthing along rather than screaming lest they miss something by turning up their own volume.

Space makes its debut on the tour. Having witnessed it earlier in the soundcheck, it comes alive in the show. Tim's drawn in by the orchestra, dancing with his back to the crowd before singing the outro section with one of the men from the choir. We're Going To Miss You almost has a false start, but they recover, Tim joking "getting away with it, all messed up" before the song builds to the chorus.

Tim explains to us after that this tour isn't just about the hits and says sorry to those who came expecting them, they dip in and pick less obvious songs. They change the set every night even with the James chaos meeting the structure that orchestras need and they're finding common ground.

Hello starts with white lights on Dave and Mark, the subtle combination of drums and keys creating a haunting atmosphere when the cellos, a single orchestra violinist and Saul come in that's perfect for the song that's been transformed into a duet between Tim and Chloe. The interaction, both in the singing and the connection between the two, has been one of the highlights of the tour.

The last three songs of the first half of the show pick up the pace. Ten Below, about "a crap time at school", is a revelation, the stage lit up in a combination of red, blue and green and the orchestra standing up as the song builds, Tim once again dancing in front of the orchestra encouraging them to let loose more. Tomorrow gets a huge roar of appreciation, the intensity of the song remains, heightened even by the strings. As a man heads to the toilet as they start Nothing But Love Tim chastises him making a big mistake as the interval is after that song. It's a euphoric end to the first half, the audience on their feet, the huge beams on the faces of the four choir people at the front, one wearing the heart-shaped glasses that have become synonymous with the song, telling its own story about the joy and excitement on stage and the way the three bodies have come together as one.

The second half starts with Saul addressing the audience, starting off by joking that "this is a bit of a laugh" at the seriousness of everyone being sat down before telling us that this collaboration has been recorded for release in a few weeks (on the album Be Opened By The Wonderful out on June 9th - although about a third of tonight's set doesn't feature on that album).

Magic Bus opens the second half of the show with Tim starting out in the audience before heading back to the stage where he sits down and watches his band and orchestra play out the extended instrumental outro with the same awe and wonder as the rest of us. He tells us that we can use our cameras for one song only, making the point that it's a very different show with people's full attention on the music rather than their screen, gently mocking people's addiction to the screen.

Born Of Frustration is the second debutant tonight and the magic in these reinterpretations from Joe is the way that the song still retains its intrinsic appeal even though many of the elements of it have been stripped away and replaced by something more subtle. The roar of appreciation at the end tells its own story, the quality of the audience's listening on this tour has been sublime.

Tim announces a setlist change before commending the orchestra and choir for the way in which they've adapted themselves to James' way of working and thrown themselves wholeheartedly into it. Like Hello in the first half, Alaskan Pipeline reveals the most powerful of the magic that sits everywhere in this collaboration. Songs that sit unassumingly on albums are taken and brought out to be front and centre. It starts with Jim's spine-tingling bass and finishes with Wayne, the choir lead, and Chloe harmonising over the strings at the end. Again it's slightly different from previous nights in how it's executed, testament to their ongoing search for perfection and the change driving the performance on rather than it being simply a parrot fashion recital of a learned structure.

She's A Star and Moving On get probably the biggest cheers of the evening. The former has the least space for improvisation and change of the whole set, mainly because it's pretty much perfect as it. Even Jim stands up and applauds. Moving On, as we've observed before, feels even more intense with Jim's distorted bass, Saul's violin and Tim and Chloe's dual vocals and it's dedicated to those who've lost people recently, although its universal message could go back to any loss at any point in anyone's lives. Tim tells us his own story of his mother dying in a Sheffield hospital several years ago and it feeling like a birth as well as a death and it being the inspiration for the lyric.

The Lake has a false start. Seven nights in for the first one of these has probably exceeded everyone's expectations at such a vast undertaking and it's met with cheers from the audience accustomed to James sometimes slipping when trying something different and is part of the excitement and special nature of the band. Tim says it's important to get this song right though as it is the centrepiece of the set and the most significant instance of the transformative nature of this whole collaboration.

Andy sneaks off stage and reappears on the balcony for a trumpet solo to start off Hymn From A Village, the first of two songs from their early days in the 1980s where only a fool would have bet on something like this happening forty years on. Hymn, with Debbie on drums, and Medieval with the forty-ish people on stage chanting the "we are sound" refrain accompanied by another two thousand of us are testament to the legacy of even the earliest form of the band. Tim had said in the VIP soundcheck in the early days that only the drummer was a real musician and the others learned it - and it shows in the structure of these songs and the way they've been reassessed by Joe for this project.

Sometimes is a glorious finale to the main set. Ever-changing at the end as the mood takes them on the night, the choir take over the final repeating of the song's defining line "sometimes when I look deep in your eyes I swear I can see your soul" as Tim stands and watches them in awe at how they've taken this classic song to their hearts and put their own personalities on it. Strings have replaced the racing guitar hook, drums are subtle and repetitive but further up in the mix to give it structure. It almost falls apart at the end as no one seems to quite know when to stop and let the strings take it to its final conclusion, but that's all part of the magic.

The encore starts with Tim conducting the orchestra in Ravel's Bolero as Joe makes a later arrival back on stage. It's obviously set up like this and we've seen it seven times, but it's a really nice less serious moment for those just at one show. Sit Down, stripped down to its bare bones, is even more poignant and hard-hitting, the sadness and feelings of vulnerability and being alone heightened by the strings. While some people cite being tired of hearing it, it's a song that we'd never tire of hearing what they do next with to keep it fresh.

Finishing the night with All The Colours Of You and Many Faces, two songs from the last two albums, feels like a statement of intent. It'd be easy to finish with a slew of hits and send the crowd out the door buzzing as is often the case at a standard James show, but this tour is about more than that. The night ends with pretty much everyone on their feet singing one of James' modern songs of unity - "there's only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here." Whilst it might have a wider world view behind it, it also captures the inclusive nature of what's gone on up on stage for the past three hours.

James played Laid, Beautiful Beaches, The Shining, Say Something, Space, We're Going To Miss You, Hello, Ten Below, Tomorrow, Nothing But Love, Magic Bus, Born Of Frustration, Alaskan Pipeline, She's A Star, Moving On, The Lake, Hymn From A Village, Medieval, Sometimes, Sit Down, All The Colours Of You and Many Faces

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 Birmingham Symphony Hall (May 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.


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