James live in San Diego, the return of the magnificent seven
Music history has a strange way of writing itself even as the years roll by, occasionally those supposed voices of authority simply miss a trick or two. For example if I were to ask you which of the many important bands to evolve from Manchester over the last 30 years have been the greatest of all I expect that responses would include Joy Division, The Smiths, the Stone Roses or perhaps The Happy Mondays. The fact of the matter however is you would’ve missed the greatest band of all if you neglected to mention James. How do I know? Because I’ve seen almost all of the above (*New Order not Joy Division) and am in a reasonable position to compare. Of course I acknowledge that each of those bands played very significant parts over the last three decades which just happens to coincide with the span of my concert going life. Indeed at various times my passion for each of those bands occasionally matched that I held for James, but when it comes right down to it only James managed to last, only James failed to disintegrate and only James have never disappointed.
Just looking at the recorded output of each band only strengthens my argument that James (even with a five plus year sabbatical at the beginning of the last decade) offer the deepest and most intriguing catalog of music from their earliest recordings on Factory and Blanco Y Negro (Sire) to the two most recent albums Hey Ma and The Morning After/The Night Before. James never stood still and never made an album that smelled of contractual agreement or internal chaos (although Whiplash came closest for chaos, but such lovely chaos). I struggle to find the right adjectives to describe to new listeners exactly what James sound like which is probably a good thing, usually you can say a band might remind you of so-and-so with a hint of him as well; but that was never the case with James from the early folk tinged and decidedly awkward angular offerings on Factory and the debut album Stutter all the way through to where they now reside. On more than one occasion I’ve bemoaned my bad timing at not being old enough to have seen the early flair of punk first hand such as The Clash/Buzzcocks during their formative years but I now know that I was beyond lucky to see James as early as 1985 in London. I was hooked immediately and in the next 15 years I’d see them another 10 times, watching them grow from an initial lineup of four to the expansive and robust full complement of seven plus a few personnel changes to boot. The earlier years didn’t bring the notoriety or success that the music merited but a succession of excellent live performances saw a dedicated and loyal group of fans provide just enough stimulus to keep them going-coupled with what I can only imagine was sheer bloody mindedness on their part. I didn’t see another band that had such a connection with their audience as James in the second half of the 1980′s, the band seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd and vice-versa although at times to me at least it seemed that liking James was the best-kept secret in music and might always remain that way. I was happy so long as they persevered.
Difficult relations with record companies (particularly the timing behind second album Strip Mine) saw things go from bad to worse while simultaneously the band were continuing to improve as a live act with an audience that simply rejoiced at their hand. The sporadic press coverage they got too often focused around record company wranglings and speculation as to the future of the band, somehow they never gave up and released the exceptional One Man Clapping live album in 1987, my favourite live album of all…. At which point some modest support from Rough Trade saw them go on to release a pair of singles that probably changed the tide at last. Come Home and Sit Down both revealed a band that were three steps ahead of the competition for anybody who cared to listen. It was this era that led to a significant breakthrough with the signing to Fontana Records who provided them with the artistic control but also the backing and presence to get their music into shops and onto the radio at last.
The next five years saw James emerge as an act that were finally getting the recognition their previous output and live performances had always deserved. In fact they got bigger than I ever imagined and like many other ‘earlier’ James fans I felt as if we’d been able to cross the ocean at a time when others were scared to leave the shore. I was thrilled for the band who had some personnel changes but always remained as uniquely James as those first EPs. I won’t bore you with any more history and you can look it up yourself but when the band called it a day in 2001 I sadly resigned myself to the fact that they’d had a remarkable run and nothing lasts forever which isn’t to say that made it any easier because in my opinion the band continued to improve with the simply outstanding Pleased to Meet You being their final release before they split. It seemed that so many years together had taken their toll and some time apart was needed but it still hurt to see it end although tellingly original guitarist Larry Gott joined the band on their final appearance. If for some reason you don’t have the recorded document of that concert on DVD I implore you to own it, I’ll get you one for your birthday. I’ve shown it to people who had never heard James and they sit with a knowing stare and slack jawed wonder by the time proceedings come to an end. It’s that good and captures what a special experience James are in concert.
I don’t want to skim over the facts but the band did continue their story with the relase of Hey Ma (featuring the classic Seven lineup in full with the return of Larry) and most recently The Morning After…. I was in equal measure amazed and thrilled to see that James didn’t come back to simply make us hope for the old days, the present seemed rather brilliant too and I was so glad to have them back. Circumstances and me leaving London and moving to America have meant I hadn’t seen James for over a decade but when they announced a stop on their West Coast tour in San Diego I recall grinning, smiling and then running off to find my better half Kim to tell her (she’d never seen James yet…and was almost as excited as myself). The weeks couldn’t roll by fast enough until last Thursday’s appearance at the House of Blues and I was buzzing before we even arrived. Looking to reconnect with something I’ve had in my life for 27 years was a huge expectation, we’re all a bit older and perhaps wiser now but was the magic still there. I hoped for the best but knew I’d be better off being guarded in my optimism, this was a band I’ve cited for decades as one of three (pun not intentional) best live acts I’d ever seen, the simple fact I’d drank from that well so many times probably gives them top spot.
We handed in our tickets, paid for extravagantly overpriced Stella and got ready.
I was pleased to see the hall gradually filling and older and younger James lovers emerge in the half light, some old shirts had made their way onto bodies that were probably smaller when originally purchased. I saw a lot of couples, chaps trying to convince girls that James were exceptional or vice versa and to get out of the house and be prepared to dance a bit. Sadly opening act Elizaveta was sick and had to cancel her support slot which was a pity as I did my homework for once and had been looking forward to seeing her perform. As we found our way to the front local support from Tori (not party) had kicked off and she plus her accompanying guitarist led us through a succession of beautifully strummed songs that ranged from high to low rushes of plaintive singing and harmonies, rather good I thought and it seemed Saul from James thought the same. I saw him behind the drum kit and then take a perch. Between songs he made his whereabouts to the audience known and said “I was just going to tell you to shut the fuck up and listen to these guys because they’re really good, but you’ve done that anyway, nice people in San Diego”. He reaffirmed his support by picking up his violin and joining them on the next number. In front of us I saw a crew member plug in a guitar lead and I knew what was next, shortly after that Larry Gott plugged in to accompany them on the next track also. It was nice to see Larry again (despite the dodgy sandals) and the four on stage sounded wonderful playing together.
Then followed a fairly brief interlude before James were to take the stage; the House of Blues stage is neither particularly wide nor deep so there were no bad places to stand in a venue that probably holds about 400 people, as it was we secured space just a few feet from the stage in between where Tim Booth and Larry would be with the variable being Andy Diagram and his trumpet/tambourine but unfortunately no dress. As the setlists were taped to the stage floor I resisted the temptation to crane my neck deciding that the running order of songs would be far more enjoyable as a complete surprise, the tour so far had taken on a wide selection of songs from their entire career and James are renowned for mixing up things on a nightly basis to fit their mood but also keep things fresh (as a daisy) for both the band and audience. As it was we were treated to songs that took me back all the way to 1985 as well as more recent material. If you’ve never seen James live, you need to do what you can to rectify that. You’ll never see a band with seven members who complement each other so effectively and efficiently.
Things started with Tim Booth reciting the chorus to White Boy with no backing from the band before they launched into the machine gun scatter attack of that great song, instantly you notice the driving yet so intense drumming of Dave providing the springboard for the band along with the measured bass of Jim Glennie. Jim has always made playing bass look so effortless and yet his work on the instrument is as complex as it is critical to their sound. When the song ended the roar from the crowd was both ferocious but understandable, we haven’t had many chances to see James in recent times. Tim apologised that he might not be a reach some high notes tonight (can’t say that I noticed) as he was still overcoming some flu-like symptoms.
The band then leapt into four songs that were all from Gold Mother or Seven and suddenly it felt that no time had passed whatsoever since I enjoyed all of these live almost 20 years prior. Heavens remains as beautiful today as when I first heard it with the wavelike effect on the chorus that just tosses you into a frenzy of foam brilliantly augmented by the trumpet of Andy. When they then played that familiar opening to Come Home at last a decent ratio of the audience remembered that it was all right to dance gradually losing their inhibitions to a song that always knocked the rest of the Madchester sounds into a runner-up role, Tim Booth spent most of that song being supported by a very strong wrist from a crowd member on the other side of the stage. I focused on Larry for a while and it was plain to see just how much he was enjoying himself with the songs that he was such a vital component of. While it’s easy to focus on Tim which you can’t really help, the entire band remain masters of their craft in the live setting. Mark’s keyboards range from dominant to layered but at all times are just where you want them within the mix, Saul would get even more respect live in a band with a smaller onstage personality but as it is his fluid transitions between violin and both six and 12 string guitars always flesh out the songs with even more beauty and colour, plus of course he shares primary backing vocal duties along with Andy Diagram. Andy convinces you that all songs could benefit from the flourish of his trumpet playing and I love that he tends to sing along to every word of every song even when he’s not at the microphone. One of the more unexpected songs of the night was Seven the title track from the album really helped James to find stability and their wider audience. It’s a tender song of love and hope but so celebratory in its own way, at times a song that you might be antagonised by but when life shows a bit more joy it’s a song that can only ever fill you with believe. Tim was leaning up against the edge of the PA right above us during this song which allowed us a close-up vision of how happy he is to be performing. They then introduced Ring The Bells as a song about losing faith in established gods and for me at least it was one of the highlights of the evening. It’s a cascading song that builds from acoustic origins into a full-blown announcement during the chorus about finding (perhaps) your own inner god or strength versus the one we were supposed to go with. While Tim’s voice remains as flexible and powerful as years gone by I wondered if his overall energy and dancing could possibly match the remarkable physical demands he used to put himself through in years gone by. Once again I shouldn’t have worried, he is still charged by some deep electrical sensation that celebrates the music, celebrates the rhythm and seems to cherish being alive to do it. If you can watch Tim dance and fail to lose your own sense of self doubt and drop your inhibitions then I think you’re probably missing something. My struggle to find the correct adjective is obvious if I simply state that Tim dancing is a combination of the most energetic, joyous and celebratory thing you’ll ever see within the confines of a rock concert. When partnered with the music watching him find that release is as uplifting as it gets…for me at least. Swirling round that like leaves caught in a windy cyclone is a band who help songs build to the point where you’re certain the seams will break such as during the last minutes of Ring The Bells.
James play a smart set list by letting us catch our breath with the emotive and wondrous Play Dead and then launch into the early brilliance of Medieval aided by additional snare percussion by Saul. Not sure many recognised this old classic but the ending harmonies of ‘We Are Sound’ take me back to being the teen who could dance with far more energy than I can usually, until tonight anyway. Even when the band take some of the tape loops needed to create Play Dead and the next song Jam J the pace continues with a full head of steam, if the easiest thing in the world for a veteran band to do is rely on a set full of nothing but the hits then James do just the opposite which perhaps sums up their approach since the beginning.
Over the years some people have seem James only for their ability to write great and bold pop music but the beauty in many of their album tracks, especially piano driven songs. Dust Motes make a fleeting and beautiful appearance, perhaps the strongest song on their most recent album. The slow pressured build handled expertly by the band and Tim’s voice sounding so warm and full. Dust Motes appear in a Buddha wording about boundless times and infinity, not sure if that was the source but equally lovely prose if you care to look it up. P.S. haunts as ever when the always loved Five-O takes the set onward and upward. There is a song that you could put on anytime, anywhere and I would have to stop what I was doing and simply listen (or poorly singalong). A magnificent interchange between violin and guitar with Larry making those emotional sounds match the anguish of Tim’s lyrics. What a song.
We started towards the home straight and I couldn’t be happier and half expect the next song to be something as obscure as Island Swing or Undertaker when the simple beauty of the D-A-G chords that capture Johnny Yen spring into life. Confession time – when I was 18 and first saw this song performed live I thought my heart and lungs would surely burst such was it’s rollercoaster effect, James even built it up over the years to become an even more ferocious assault on suffering for your art. It was one of my favourite songs of the 1980′s and rekindles the same fire tonight. Perhaps an unknown epic even for some James fans its a splendid thing and great to hear again.
It’s time for the audience involvement I assume and with that another of my favourites English Beefcake begins. A treacherous song that begins like a future trance that leaves you feeling vulnerable and strong at the same time. It’s a bitter song at it’s heart though I think which contrasts with the beautiful repeated coda that sees the audience being drawn in like a magnet to sing along with the band. Forgiveness and obsession are recurring themes then tonight but so too is love, which probably leads to the former in the first place. One of these days I’ll work that one out.
Reworking existing songs has always been a great feature of James and they do that on at least four occasions tonight taking a song and bashing it into a new shape, stretched to it’s limit but never quite cracking the original structure before somehow morphing it back to a logical centre. I didn’t takes notes at the concert and I’m working on three day old memories now but I think Larry’s majestic slide guitar and Saul’s violin were usually the gateways to these very different versions, in any case they worked and continued to surprise. Say Something was next and this in turn had a tempo change that was different to hear, still a cracking song but I’m amazed that Laid became the giant hit in the States when this s0ng resided on the same album. Perfect pop but more intricate in it’s presentation I shouldn’t wonder. The only song tonight that let me down at all was the next number Waltzing Along which found Tim a fraction ahead of the band for the first half of the song a gap that didn’t get closed.
I didn’t want the night to end but when Sometimes began I knew the conclusion was near, Sometimes has rightly become perhaps the greatest live James song and long may that be the case. The song was perfection from the first time of asking featuring manic strumming and more of Tim Booth’s most warm lyrics, over the years it has landed as the ultimate singalong from the audience where the band simply provide percussion and knowing smiles (for further evidence have a look at this last year in Manchester). The San Diego audience took a while to get going but ultimately sang our collective heart out to the band who responded with a flurried close. As I mentioned few bands seem to have a bond with the listener like James, at early gigs I recall them always applauding the audience at the end and that tradition is one that never eroded.
James – ‘Sometimes’ – San Diego 19/4/12
The encore seemed to pass by in just moments but not before further evidence of the quality of their history – Getting Away With It was simply titanic in it’s sound and scope whilst Say Something resulted in many people closing their eyes and singing along in joy. I wondered if Laid would get an airing and indeed the set closed with that, VIP ticket holders invited onstage for a group dance sessions (all paling in comparison with Tim) whilst Larry did his best to avoid getting knocked over as he dashed back and forth. Happiness was abundant, the greatest band of the last twenty five (plus) years demonstrated that the chemistry remains between them and of course the crowd. A spectacular night then which for me reaffirmed why I love this band and for Kim (who was seeing them for the first time) a quick pronouncement of her best concert ever.
I’ve been able to talk with Tim twice before back in the depths of the 1980′s but never after a gig strangely. Once he came into the record shop where I worked to see if we had their then new single of Come Home just released on Rough Trade. We did and a nice long conversation ensued. Just a few months later he was on the tube and again we chatted. After the concert we decided to wait and see if perhaps he might have a few minutes to talk. It was a long wait (Don’t wait that long?) but eventually close to 1am Tim came over to the three of us who remained (hello Anthony!) and was a complete pleasure to talk to, not in a rush to get off to his hotel and terribly generous with his time. He signed a CD single of Sometimes after I told him about our meeting probably 24 years earlier and posed for photos. Such a nice bloke and as polite and warm as ever.
James should be recognised by now as one of England’s greatest acts and I don’t know how that has evaded them, it seems the fans still know. Music history will show that they were true to the course and evolved when others fell apart and that they really overcame the odds. Try and see them live if you can and revisit their amazing body of work, better still in this age of social media and sharing be sure to tell everyone you know what we already understand. We are sound.
James – Getting Away With It (all messed up) – San Diego 19/4/12
Credit for the videos on this post goes to Rosemary at San Diego dialed in.
Learn much more about James via their official website.
Recommended listening – everything.