Tuesday 31 October 2023

James / The Snuts - London Shepherd's Bush Empire - 30th October 2023

James concluded their 2023 live activity with their most intimate London show in years headlining Absolute Radio's 15th Birthday celebrations at Shepherd's Bush Empire. A hit-heavy set with a few curveballs for the hardcore fans saw them sign off the year in celebratory mood whilst still finding new ways to twist and turn old classics. Support came from The Snuts.

The Snuts open up the show to a crowd that half seem to know them and half not. They’ve had a number one album with their debut WL and are more than capable of filling this venue with their own fans and they set about winning over those that don’t know them with a seven-song set that goes from early single Seasons right through to their two most recent - Gloria and Dreams - taken from their forthcoming third album.

Whilst they’re a band that thrive on the energy and response from their crowd, they’ve learned the craft of impressing an audience that isn’t theirs, key to them developing a bigger following rather than just those that want to hear the debut album on repeat for the rest of time, a hole some bands never get out of through no fault of their own. Their songwriting has improved, matured (although that’s a dirty word) without losing the essence of what made their appeal in the first place. Jack is an assured frontman, strolling the stage in shades that’d look out of place indoors in any other situation, and with a voice that’s grown stronger and with more depth over the years. It’s an impressive set that will have won them more admirers.

It’s an odd show for James coming off the back of two orchestral shows and their successful outdoor summer headliners. In olden days they’d have taken the opportunity to showcase new songs, as they did in this very venue in 2000 for an MTV show. However, times have changed, and the minute anything new is played it’s all over the internet and any hope of presenting new music the way they want to do is gone. So whilst we’d hoped they might throw in a new song, we suspected they wouldn’t and that’s fine.

The set is the closest to a greatest hits set we’ve seen them play since they reformed but it feels fitting for the occasion - it isn’t just Absolute Radio’s 15th birthday party, it’s James’ end of term prom and whilst they’re a little under-rehearsed, that’s when this band are at their best because their improvisational tendencies then take the upper hand and even on songs we’ve heard a hundred times they take them to new places.

Opening song Sound is a case in point, Tim prowling the stage encouraging them to divert off the beaten track which they do. The chemistry and love on stage is probably as strong as we’ve ever seen it and everything gels together. The sound (no pun intended) is magnificent, clear, loud and yet the detail can be heard perfectly and with this band that detail is what sets them apart. Ring The Bells has been largely laid fallow this year and it feels reinvigorated by the rest, Tim completely losing himself as the song hurtles to a climatic explosion at the end, Andy and Chloe duelling vocals.

The orchestral tour has allowed James to explore their quieter more subtle side this year, so the likes of Curse Curse making a return feels like they’re letting their hair down and relieving a pressure valve. It’s chaotic in many ways, but that’s when the magic happens. Tim ventures down on the barrier, almost gets dragged in before returning to the stage to watch as Chloe takes on the breakdown vocals through a megaphone before heading back to dance in front of Debbie.

It’s followed by two more tracks from La Petite Mort, clearly a favourite in the band’s canon. Walk Like You feels like they’ve perfected it in a way they never managed on the album’s own release campaign, beautifully poignant, even more so when Tim explains at the end that the song was inspired by his son Luca’s birth by Caesarian section and the line “the universe is in your eyes” from when he opened his eyes for the first time when Tim sang to him.  Two thousand hearts melted at the story.  Interrogation is one of their greatest songs, and we’ll die on the hill of them needing to play the full length version for its full majesty to be appreciated. Its dark lyrics and hard-edged music though make it one of the most powerful live songs they have away from the big big hitters.

Two of those follow. Tomorrow is preceded by an amusing incident where Saul starts the song slowly and just as it kicks in and speeds up Tim stops them and says it’s in the wrong key, at which point a discussion ensues on stage about it. Saul, Tim and Jim joke about it before they restart and Shepherd’s Bush starts to bounce. Come Home has Tim out, climbing off the barrier to dance in the crowd as the audience recall their much younger days and throw themselves into a song that feels timeless. There’s so much joy in the room.

Things almost go wrong as Adrian has issues with his pedal board, so they decide on the fly to play She’s A Star which sees him play cello as the crew try to fix the problem. Tim starts to tell his infamous penguin joke before they play it, but thinks better of it, much to the disappointment of some around us. The song has been beautifully arranged in a stripped back version on the orchestra tour and tonight’s straddles the full-on electric and that version. It’s a little messy and unclean, but no one seems to mind as it’s how this band roll, creating unique versions of old favourites. Without their ability to do this, James wouldn’t be the band they are.

They take an audience request that had been shouted out before and play Johnny Yen next and it’s testament to the enduring nature of the band that a thirty-seven year old album track still is one of the songs that their fanbase always shout for. Tim tells us they don’t do requests so this is a special occasion. Morrissey and Marr were probably right in their assessment that this should have been single back in 1986 given its longevity and it allows them once more to improvise and take the song off in different directions.

“This is the best b-side you’ve never heard” Tim tells us. The guy next to us hopes that it’s Slow Right Down are dashed as it’s All Good Boys, a band favourite from the exceptional set of b-sides they recorded for the Millionaires album. It’s beautifully melodic and builds to the point where the music drops out and six of them repeat the song’s refrain over and over a cappella. Those that do know it roar their appreciation, while those that don’t make note to go and find it tomorrow.

The anticipation of the next song is spoiled a little by Saul telling Dave that “it’s Sit Down”. They blast through a short sharp version of it that’s far from anthemic, but rocked up and dirty compared to the clean crisp recorded version. The band’s refound love for it ensures that it isn’t simply being rolled out because it’s easy, they want to play with it, twist it and let the love for it flow.

There’s been nothing off All The Colours Of You (or indeed Girl At The End Of The World or Living In Extraordinary Times so far), but that’s rectified by Beautiful Beaches, a song that is a huge hit single from a different time. The Shepherd’s Bush crowd react as strongly to this as they do to pretty much everything else around it. It finishes with just Dave and Debbie playing drums whilst the rest of them turn and face them and kneel to listen, a sign of the camaraderie in the 2023 version of James.

We’re approaching curfew time so Tim tells us they’re going to dispense with the encore ritual given there’s plenty on their typed setlist that they’re not going to be able to play. Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) is the band’s unofficial anthem as it captures the band’s flying by the seat of their pants ethos. It’s been transformed over time from a single that their label almost smuggled out as the only single from their final pre-reformation period album Pleased To Meet You into one of their most-loved songs. It’s a celebration of not conforming, being imperfect, but being true to yourself and in doing so, encapsulates James perfectly.

“We’ve veered so far from the setlist no one knows what we’re going to play next” Tim tells us with a wry smile. Sometimes is the answer, the one song that almost entirely avoided a spell on the bench over the last few years. It’s celebratory when the crowd take the chorus and Tim lets them, the ground floor bouncing as one, yet it’s nothing compared to everyone letting go for one final time as Saul punctuates the singalong with the opening bars of Laid and for three minutes the place loses its collective shit for the final time.

The buzz in the room is electric as the lights go up. It’s rare for James to play a show this small these days, their June 2024 show is at the mammoth O2, 10 times the size of this. They make those arenas feel intimate, but tonight you could see the whites in their eyes, smell the intensity of the performance and revel in the fact that it could all coming crashing down in an instant. The song choice might have been more straight-forward than usual, but this band is all about the delivery of them. And that was as unpredictably unpredictable as ever.

James played Sound, Ring The Bells, Curse Curse, Walk Like You, Interrogation, Tomorrow, Come Home, She’s A Star, Johnny Yen, All Good Boys, Sit Down, Beautiful Beaches, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), Sometimes and Laid.

James 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

The Snuts' website can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter.


Follow Even The Stars on Twitter at @eventhestarsuk and like our Facebook page for all the latest updates

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