James headed to Leicester's De Montfort Hall on Tuesday night with Orca 22 and the Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir for a sold-out warm-up show for their date at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre show at the Acropolis in Greece next week. Their set covered most of their career from their days on Sire in the 1980s right through to a brand new song written for their Be Opened By The Wonderful orchestrated album that came out last month.
It's an interesting summer of shows for James, skipping between shows with the orchestra and choir and full band headline sets, requiring two very different mindsets and performances given the thirty people the former brings with it. Between full band sets in Liverpool last weekend and two coming up at Halifax this weekend they slipped back into orchestra mode almost seamlessly, interchanging the big hits needed for an outdoor weekend crowd for those more suited to a seated attentive audience who mostly complied with the band's requests to keep their phones in their pockets.
The set starts with Magic Bus and Tim out in the audience. The orchestra, choir and the rest of the band are already on stage when Tim appears at the top of the stalls to a huge roar that has everyone turning round to see him and he makes his way through the crowd, stopping at the moment the song hits a dramatic pause that seems to last an eternity before it kicks back in and he then makes his way down the tiered stalls to the stage. He refers to the bus as being driverless and the fact that this is the first orchestral show since they were on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London seven weeks ago and there's a couple of familiar faces missing from the orchestra means there's a sense of risk running through the set which, in true James fashion, works to their advantage.
We're Going To Miss You is a song transformed by the orchestra and choir and lifts it up into something quite special, particularly when the brass and wind section kick in at the end and then the music drops out and band and choir repeat the mantra "here's a mirror with your name on, singing we're gonna miss you when you've gone".
The magic of these shows though lies quite strongly in hearing songs that the band rarely play on their own. The Shining is one such example, slowed down slightly with the choir coming down to the front to sing the harmonies that lift the song. It's clearly a band favourite from their Pleased To Meet You album that they've recently lamented sort of limped out at the end of their record contract and the first life of the band back in 2001. The Lake is a setlist change, a b-side from "whatever album it was" Tim says before recalling it was Laid, and encapsulates the magic of this whole collaboration in just under six minutes - the dramatic moments are even more so augmented by the strings and the lift that the choir gives it is truly stunning. Dust Motes, from 2010's The Morning After mini-album, sees the stage all in black other than Mark at the back for the opening keys, and the song's intimacy and painful recollection of a break-up and search for peace is even more powerful
Beautiful Beaches brings us up to date, the song testament to the band's ability to still craft songs that makes connections. Here it's stripped back yet loses none of that magic, the tension and fear of the song felt even more intensely while the music still provides a counterbalance to the lyrics. Space, another from Pleased To Meet You, sees the choir very much elevating the song again with the lift that eight gospel choir voices can give. It's one of a few songs here that the band never quite nailed live on their own that Joe's arrangements and the choir make perfect sense of.
Moving On starts with Jim's grunged up bass line which runs through the song, almost recreating the fuzzy haze that sets in when you're experiencing loss and the song resonates equally as much in this arrangement which stretches the song out a little as it does in the video that accompanies the single version. There's a few wet eyes around the place as it comes to an end. Ten Below is powerfully uplifting when the orchestra kick in, as if the shackles have been taken off them and they can let loose rather than provide the subtleties. Tim jokes at the end that the casual James fans took the opportunity to go to the toilet at this point but that was their loss.
The first half finishes with a trio of singles - Nothing But Love is euphoric, the strings standing as the final choruses kick in and the stage is bathed in orange light, subtly enhancing the impact as the lighting does all night but letting the music be the star. Born Of Frustration starts slowly, almost unrecognisable to many at the start of the intro, before Tim jumps down into the stalls and makes his way up to the top where he climbs on to a barrier and does his best trapeze artist impersonation. They leave with a bang, Tomorrow is driven along by strings where there were once full on guitars, the song retaining all of the power of the original, but dressed in different clothes.
The second half starts with Tim coming out and teasing the orchestra with Joe's baton before conducting them in a section of Ravel's Bolero. As Joe comes out Tim dedicates the song to Claire, a woman who they'd been told about in the soundcheck by a friend who'd attended the Royal Albert Hall show and passed away suddenly the following week, and whose favourite song this was. It's a beautiful tribute, Chloe joining Tim to sing it half way through and the audience joining in politely at the end. Love Make A Fool follows, the new song written for this project out of the sessions for the next James album, and having been played without the orchestra and choir a couple of weeks back, it feels fully clothed again.
We're then taken on another diversion through lesser trod paths of the James catalogue. Medieval, from Strip-Mine but in their set as early as 1983, is transformed into a euphoric chant of "we are sound" at the end. Someone's Got It In For Me sees Justin from the choir take over the chorus vocals and completely transform it as Tim stands with the same awe two thousand of us are sat watching that happen. He introduces the orchestra and choir and chides the orchestra for their name being less impressive than the choir's before Joe playfully reminds him that he chose it. Saul joins in and introduces "the greatest band in the world that no one's heard of - James" before paying tribute to Jim who set the band up and gave it its name. Alaskan Pipeline, another Pleased To Meet You rarity that's only ever been played once back in 2001 without an orchestra, also sees the choir take a section of the song in the choruses and make it their own, an arrangement that happened mid-tour as part of the evolving nature of this project.
She's A Star is beautifully executed, less adventurous than some of what goes on around it, but the string section perfectly capture the essence of the song and the simplicity allows Tim to remind us of the emotional power of his voice that sometimes gets lost in the noise of a full-on electric band. That power is augmented by Chloe on the achingly beautiful ballad Hello that is transformed into a duet and you can hear a pin drop between lines as the two of them stand face to face side-on to the audience.
Riders is introduced as about a life-changing dream from 1983 and somehow with thirty of them on stage and a range of instruments James would never have considered ever being accompanied by back at the time, manages to capture the raw essence of the band at that time and the power of this collaboration. Joe and Tim have a playful interchange at the end, Tim referencing Morrissey's love of the band back then and the joke not being funny anymore which Joe tells him is a Smiths reference.
Saul makes a point of dedicating Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) to the crew who make this whole thing work, and watching it at closer quarters this really wouldn't be possible without their skill, expertise and ability to adapt quickly to whatever ideas the band throw at them last minute. The audience starts clapping along to which Tim says they have to be really in time otherwise it'll completely fuck up the timing - Joe conducts the audience clapping and it all stays intact. They then finish the main set with an uplifting All The Colours Of You, where again the song's inherent dramatic cuts and pastes of its creation in a studio with Jacknife are brought to life with live instruments before it segues into Many Faces, the choir in a line at the front as they improvise their way through repeatedly singing the song's core message that "there's only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here."
They take their bows and leave, except the orchestra who remain in their seats to tell us that they'll be back. Tim has a few quick conversations as they come back out and tells everyone they've decided to do Say Something and Sometimes as the encore. The former is stripped down more than it was on the tour itself and feels a little more poignant as a result with Tim staying on stage rather than heading out. Sometimes brings the night to a glorious conclusion, the whole room finally up on their feet after being a little reticent earlier on and joining in as the song's refrain is repeated, fast then slow, and being taken on a journey with the mood. As it drops down, the band and choir kneel and face the strings section who bring it to an end before they take their bows and depart for the final time.
James played Magic Bus, We're Going To Miss You, The Shining, The Lake, Dust Motes, Beautiful Beaches, Space, Moving On, Ten Below, Nothing But Love, Born Of Frustation, Tomorrow, Sit Down, Love Make A Fool, Medieval, Someone's Got It In For Me, Alaskan Pipeline, She's A Star, Hello, Riders, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), All The Colours Of You, Many Faces, Say Something and Sometimes.
They also play Halifax Piece Hall (July 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).
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) as well as rescheduled dates at Bath Forum (October 24) and Nottingham Royal Centre (25).
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.