Saturday 8 July 2023

James / Tom A Smith - Halifax Piece Hall - 7th July 2023

James played the first of two nights in the remarkably beautiful surroundings of Halifax Piece Hall on Friday night. Performing with six singers from the Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir they moved from songs from the early 1980s right through to the current day with effortless ease, mixing their songs of celebration of life, death and everything in between in front of a celebratory audience in the late evening sun.

Tom A Smith opened the evening and the Sunderland youngster and his band win over a new set of fans with an impressive half-hour set taken mostly from his three EPs to date. The big stage and an audience, the majority of which are probably older than his parents (we met his Dad and can vouch for this), could faze many young artists but he and his band exude a confidence and, more importantly, a real sense of joy in their performance that transmits itself to the crowd. Opening with Could I Live With Being Fake and with Little Bits, Weirdo and set-closer Dragonfly being particular highlights, Tom demonstrates he's already got a strong body of work behind him. The audience connect with the energy, clapping along to songs most of them have never heard before. They leave with the audience's applause ringing in their ears, very much job done.

After Jamie Webster delivers a fifty minute set of political and social commentary, thankfully putting down requests to make it into a football celebration from some fans down the front, it's time for the headline act. It's thirty-four years since James last played in this most majestic of location, probably the most beautiful outdoor gig venue in the UK, at a benefit show to raise funds for rainforests and elephants. Tonight the square is full and expectant, the buzz polite but enthusiastic and the band, still zigzagging between orchestral and full band shows, possibly a little under-rehearsed. Where with most bands this might be a problem, with James it actually makes for a more exciting fluid show and special moments and over the course of ninety minutes they deliver several of those.

Ironically they start the set with two songs that they performed thirty-four years ago. Johnny Yen is chaotic, on the verge of breakdown as Tim takes the improvised part to tell us "we don't know what we're doing" as this old favourite winds its weird and wonderful path to a conclusion.  "We haven't played this old one for a long time" Tim tells us as the choir join them and What For is a real triumph. He tells us that it was their first attempt at writing a single and it shows in that it possesses still all the anthemic qualities of the songs that broke them into the charts a few years later. At the end he adds the lyric on the recorded version was "I will dive into foaming seas" instead of the Sellafield he sang on live versions back in the day and now because they were threatened with being sued. "Now, fuck them" he concludes.

Waltzing Along sees Tim down on the barrier for the first time and the crowd, more familiar with this one, move more, belting out the chorus almost drowning him out. The sound in the Piece Hall is wonderful, but a little on the low side for obvious reasons being stationed in the centre of the town.  All The Colours Of You is the newest song they play tonight and possesses the energy and spirit of their latest record, whilst Interrogation really represents the spirit of post-reformation James, a song that builds, twists and turns and allows them space to breathe and improvise. It might not be a chart-pleasing hit, but it says more about James than many of those better known songs. Josh from the choir comes down to the front for the high vocals at the end, adding a new twist to it.

Born Of Frustration has a gloriously slow intro to it that builds into the song and it feels like five thousand people are joined as one impersonating the Indian call to arms. It's followed by Space with Josh once again taking on the role of "tonight's screamer" for the end section. Tim stops to check on the sound, tells us they've got the best sound man in the world and then explains that with over three hundred songs, it's impossible to pick a set where everyone gets to hear their favourite song and no one goes home disappointed and that's why there's songs from the eighties, nineties and "bits from here and everywhere" and urges us to take it as it comes. Most of the five thousand gathered do just that.

Next up is Out To Get You which starts with Andy on trumpet and Saul on violin, but as the song evolves Saul becomes the star, the reluctant violinist coming to the fore although he admits he does actually love it when Tim compliments him at the end but that he doesn't want to overplay it.  The song itself feels reinvigorated after a rest of a few years.

Hymn From A Village is dedicated to "the oldies" and sees Debbie and Dave swap drum kits. It's fast and frenetic, in many ways similar to the forty year old original but imbibed with the spirit of modern day James. Medieval, a song almost as old, starts with Andy's trumpet and concludes in the choir and band chanting "we are sound, we are sound" repeatedly - it's one of the songs that with the choir translates back best from the orchestral setting.

From here on in, the remaining seven songs are a mini greatest hits designed to send the crowd out the door buzzing. There's no fake encore routine given the ninety minute set length and the need to not overrun the curfew and put at risk Piece Hall's ability to get a licence for this magnificent space for future events. Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) has become the band's anthem these days, Debbie roaming the stage with a tambourine encouraging the others on. They flip the setlist to add in Just Like Fred Astaire, Tim explaining that people who want fixed setlists just want theatre rather than more fun. He heads down to the barrier, standing in front of a young boy on his parents shoulders who will spend Monday at school telling his mates about the experience.

Moving On is dedicated to loved ones passed and with Tim and Chloe singing it to each other, the emotional resonance is strong particularly as the sun goes down. There's then an amusing moment as Tim beckons the choir down to sing the harmonies of Nothing But Love, but Dave starts up Sit Down. Dave blames Saul for the mistake, who takes responsibility, before joking that it was really whoever wrote the setlist's fault.  The choir becomes one of five thousand for the rousing latter-period Nothing But Love, before losing themselves collectively in an uplifting Sit Down, a song that feels reinvigorated this year and a beacon of light in a dark world.

Sometimes and Laid conclude the set, the former lifted by the choir and audience interchanging singing the refrain at the end as the music drops out, whilst the front of the crowd go wild for once as the opening bars of Laid kick in and they go once round the verse instrumentally before Tim comes in. There are calls for an encore but we're past curfew and to be perfectly honest it's unnecessary as well, the set was perfectly timed and paced as not to need one. More music, less downtime.

With night two promising a different setlist and very different weather, James delivered a set that both pleased those who came for the hits as well as those wanting the more traditional varied fayre that you get at a James show. The venue made it into a genuinely special occasion, a stunning backdrop, superbly organised and meticulously set up. Roll on night two.

James played Johnny Yen, Waltzing Along, All The Colours Of You, Interrogation, Born Of Frustration, Space, Out To Get You, Hymn From A Village, Medieval, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), Just Like Fred Astaire, Moving On, Nothing But Love, Sit Down, Sometimes and Laid.

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 also play Halifax Piece Hall (July 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.

Tom A Smith's website can be found here and he is on Facebook and Twitter.

He plays a series of festival and outdoor shows over the summer before embarking on a huge Winter tour calling at Glasgow SWG3 Poetry Club (November 5), Edinburgh Sneaky Pete's (6), York Fulford Arms (8), Hull Adelphi (9), Sheffield Sidney And Matilda (11), Leeds Hyde Park Book Club (12), Liverpool Kazimier Stockroom (14), Nottingham Chameleon (15), Leicester Duffy's (16), Bedford Esquires (17), Plymouth The Junction (18), Exeter The Cavern (19), Brighton Komedia Studio (21), Southampton Heartbreakers (22), Oxford Bullingdon (23), Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach (24), Bristol Louisiana (26), Birmingham Sunflower Lounge (27), St Albans The Horn (28), London Camden Assembly (29), Margate Olby's Soul Café & Music Rooms (December 1), Guildford Boileroom (2), Tunbridge Wells Forum (3), Cambridge The Blue Moon (4), Norwich Arts Centre (5), Manchester Deaf Institute (6), Middlesbrough Empire (7) and Sunderland The Fire Station (8).


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