Thursday 26 October 2023

James - Nottingham Royal Centre - 25th October 2023

 James concluded this year’s show with Orca 22 and the Manchester Inspirational Voices Gospel Choir with an exhilarating rearranged show at Nottingham’s Royal Centre. Switching the set around from the previous night in Bath, this collaboration felt at its most powerful yet and the love and connection between band, orchestra and choir fuelled them and the orchestra on as James took us on a journey through their forty-year career.

The orchestra, choir and band had made their way on stage, but there was still yet no sign of front man Tim Booth until he appeared out of a side door midway back in the stalls. The Royal Centre’s layout of one bank of seats going from one side of the venue to the other without aisles was inconvenient for those needing a loo break or who couldn’t wait for another pint, or more accurately those who had to move for them, but it also meant Tim couldn’t get out into the crowd as much as he may have liked. He sang most of Magic Bus in the space between front row and stage. Starting with an album track off their latest record All The Colours Of You was very much a statement of intent that this wasn’t just going to be any old commemoration gig and with crystal clear sound and an audience who listened when needed and became part of the show at others it was a perfect way to sign off the tour.

Space, another album track, this time off 2001’s Pleased To Meet You, follows starting with beautiful harmonies from the choir and taut tight tense strings that transformed it in an outer-worldly version of the original recording with Joe Duddell’s magical arrangements and the orchestra and choir’s willingness to immerse themselves into these songs and capture the sense of adventure that we’ve come to know and love from the band. The end of Beautiful Beaches has the lead violinist and one of the women from the choir (whose name we didn’t catch) combining as the band watch on in as stunned admiration as the rest of us. 

Moving On starts with Jim’s rumbling bass and Saul’s violin and feels even more poignant in these surroundings. Tim comments at one point about how quiet the audience were in quieter moments and at the end of certain ones and it’s down to the sheer overwhelming intensity and beauty of what we’re witnessing. This might be the last time we see them with an orchestra and choir, although Tim did suggest they might do more in future but this has been twelve years in the making. If it was, it was some way to go. Later you feel like they would still be on stage now if they could.

Dust Motes and The Shining are two examples of how songs have been taken by Joe from albums and made into centrepieces of the set. The hushed crowd and the almost echo-like vocals of Chloe and two of the women in the choir for the former really set the hairs of the neck on edge and the spine tingling, whilst the lift from the orchestra and choir when the latter hits the chorus is soaring, glorious and uplifting.

We’re Going To Miss You and Ten Below have the feel of throwing the kitchen sink at them, but instead of wild and chaotic, it’s coordinated and targeted, the power of the orchestra pushing the boundaries as far as they can without overwhelming the song and everything around them. It very much feels like they’re delivering their best performance of this set for the eighteenth and last time they’re together as one.

The Lake is like they’re all showing off. The song itself is musically one of James’ greatest moments, the control of the pace, mood and tension of the song perfect, almost too perfect for a band that thrives on and lives for its imperfections.  Someone’s Got It In For Me sees Josh take over the chorus vocals, something that happened because of Tim’s illness the day before this show was originally cancelled back in May with Josh stepping in. The band often talk of happy accidents in their songwriting, but here it completely changes the song and allows Tim time to lose himself even deeper in what’s going on. As it finishes there’s a short pause before the crowd roar their appreciation as if they’ve been momentarily stunned into silence. Even those of us who’ve seen multiple shows feel it. 

The first half finishes with Nothing But Love and Born Of Frustration. The former’s slight wonkiness that gives it its magical charm that has made it one of the most-loved post-reformation “singles” is accentuated by the lift in the vocals from the choir, the dropdown deeper and the coming up much higher. Born Of Frustration is euphoric, there’s so much going on in a song that always felt constrained by the nature of a static recording, the energy as the song hits the breakdown and Tim comes back in with the “I’m living in the weirdest dream” feels like a beautiful punch to the place where the emotions reside in the gut. Then it’s time for them and us to rest.

The second half starts with the comedy routine that is Tim coming back to stage before the rest of the band and Joe and conducting the orchestra through a section of Ravel’s Bolero before Joe comes on and threatens to sing. They segue into Sit Down which has just Tim, Chloe and, for the very end, Adrian on stage with the orchestra. There’s a choir of two thousand though as the band’s most famous song demonstrates its versatility and ability to shed skins and still hit the spot.  Love Make A Fool, their newest released song recorded for this collaboration and naked without the orchestra and choir, follows and with Debbie brought forward, the choir and orchestra clapping In time (unlike some of us) it merges the percussion-heavy feel of some of James’ more recent work with the majesty of this coming together into something that just works perfectly.

Say Something, a song that often sits on the edge of the rarely crossed James by numbers line, is made to feel like a tease. The verses are so stripped back that you can hear your own breath between Tim’s lines, the release coming in the chorus, particularly the final one when they let loose.

Alaskan Pipeline and Hello may be being played for the very last time. They don’t fit in at a traditional James show, but they feel like they were created for this very moment in time and place. The choir and Chloe take over vocals for the second verse, again an accident brought on by Tim’s illness, but as necessity is often the mother of all invention, out of need becomes something even more beautiful and unique. Hello is transformed into a duet between Tim and Chloe, the song’s heartbreaking story of a couple falling apart accentuated by the way Joe has adopted the less is more philosophy on this one to make it so affectingly impacting.

It’s back to the eighties, that often neglected phase of James as they now have so much material at their disposal. Andy appears on the balcony to serenade us, the trumpet piercing the air as everyone on stage as well as downstairs looks skywards before the drums and strings and everything else kicks in. The James of 1982 would never have believed forty years plus later the song, Hymn From A Village, they’d rehearse in a scout hut would be played by an ensemble of near forty in beautiful theatres like this, but it doesn’t feel out of place.  The magic of this tour has been hearing a song that’s a showstopper and realising you hadn’t noticed it not being played for a couple of nights because of the magic of everything else. Medieval, with its military drumbeat, and its repetitive mantra of “we are sound” at the end is as big as anything else tonight. At the end Tim tells us it was one of their first anti-war songs and a call to come together that’s much needed in the world today.

All The Colours Of You and Many Faces kick off the five-song finale. If the make up of the music business was as it was when James’ biggest songs had their day in the sun, these would have been huge hits. Jacknife’s razor-edge production on the former has been replaced by sharp jagged strings that are even more dramatic than on the record, whilst the abbreviated Many Faces finishes with everyone in the room singing that vital message that there is only one human race as the world seeks to eradicate itself in the name of whatever cause they believe to be fighting for.

The encore ritual is dispensed of and Tomorrow, whilst quite not as euphoric as the night before, testament to this tour’s ability to have different songs being the highlight each night because of the room, the mood and the crowd’s reaction. Tim jumps down from the stage and balances precariously on the top of a seat a couple of rows in.

At the end of Sometimes you sense that no one wants to leave such is the bond and connection that these disparate set of musicians have created amongst themselves. Joe had said after this arrangement had been recorded at Blueprint this time last year that he was unsure how the James fans would react to his radical deconstruction of what has become the one almost constant in the James set. He need not have worried.  

That unwillingness to leave sees them decide to do one more post-curfew. Laid hasn’t been played much at all on this tour, but it’s brought out, dead slow at first and then rampant and more raucous than ever by dint of the sheer number of people playing it by the end, the seats constraining the audience’s going wild slightly. 

Then they’re gone. Band embrace choir, choir embrace orchestra, orchestra embrace band, but in truth those barriers were well and truly broken down early in this journey. The group that came together in Brighton back in April have been on a journey to become one entity - the relationships and the music has evolved so much simply by them being on stage. Whilst there’s a sadness that this might be the last time we see James this way, the overwhelming feeling is of euphoria that they made good on their promises to do this again after 2011, and that this time it exceeded even their and our wildest dreams.

James played Magic Bus, Space, Beautiful Beaches, Moving On, Dust Motes, The Shining, We’re Going To Miss You, Ten Below, The Lake, Someone’s Got It In For Me, Nothing But Love, Born Of Frustration, Sit Down, Love Make A Fool, Say Something, Alaskan Pipeline, Hello, Hymn From A Village, Medieval, All The Colours Of You, Many Faces, Tomorrow, Sometimes and Laid.

James play London Shepherds Bush Empire (30). They tour in June 2024 calling at Aberdeen P&J Arena (June 3), Newcastle Utilita Arena (5), Glasgow OVO Hydro (7), Leeds First Direct Arena (8), Cardiff Utilita Arena (11), Birmingham Utilita Arena (12), Manchester CO-OP Live (14) and London O2 Arena (15).

James' official website can be found here. They are on Facebook and Twitter.  Some of the band - TimAndy and Dave - are also on Twitter.

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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