At this stage of my life, it’s rare that I see a band for the first time whose catalog I am intimately familiar with. After James broke up seven years ago, I assumed I would never have the chance to catch the energy of this great band in a live setting. Until, that is, I saw that they reformed, released a new (really good) album, and hit the road. Good things don’t just come in small packages, they come in surprising and unsuspecting ones too.
I have always heard that James write their songs in a jam setting. Much like the Grateful Dead, though sounding nothing like them, members just start banging away at a groove and lead singer Tim Booth provides the words, often stream of consciously. From these jams come songs that run the gamut from darkly subtle and dense to all out anthems. Seeing them live gives you the feeling of what it must be like to be in the room when their magic is flowing. The songs don’t jam endlessly at all, in fact they’re very tight, but the energy that was there at creation is obvious.
The band also did an excellent job at momentum management, a major pet peeve of mine. They started the show slowly, almost too slowly, playing three of their moodier songs including “Dream Thrum”. Just when you thought you might be lulled to sleep, out come the big guns, the James most of us are pining for. The slow songs are wonderful, but what makes James a great band is how deftly they do moody and bombastic and mix the two on an album. Too much at either speed severely off-sets the balance. The truly mind blowing thing, and let this be a lesson to every other veteran band out there, it was the new songs that got the party started. If only bands realized that if they want to sell us the new stuff, they need to present it in a package that feels lived in and also exciting. James rocked to “Oh My Heart” and “Waterfall”, both off the new album, Hey Ma, back to back. It takes major skill and cajones to get the crowd to actually increase the decibels for the new tracks instead of hitting the bathroom. Well done.
From there the show did what most shows do, jump all over the catalog for the career highlights (“Ring The Bells”, “Sit Down”, and “Out To Get You”) while sprinkling in additional new songs. The band was on fire, just as you would hope/expect, and Tim Booth’s divine voice hasn’t lost a speck of clarity. Seriously, is there a more gorgeous voice in all of rock? Possibly even better suited for the theater, it is one of rock’s tragically underrated miracles. Those in attendance uncovered another of his hidden talents, the guy gyrates like a maniac. It was funny and endearing at the same time.
I went with four friends, all of whom didn’t know each other before the night started. We chose to stand near the back behind the sound board where there was a set list. Much to my broken heart, my favorite James song, and one of my top 5 all-time, “Born Of Frustration”, was not on the list. I consoled myself by saying maybe they forgot it or the rest would be so good, I wouldn’t notice. “BoF” was a single, not some forgotten album track, so I’m confused why it wouldn’t be on there. This almost ruined the night for me. Until….
With five songs left, Tim said the beautiful words, “We’ve hit you with a lot of new stuff tonight. Let’s get back to the songs you know” and then tore into ‘Sound”, my second fave James track. It was epic, complete with bullhorn and everything. Then, like manna from heaven, I heard what I had paid for, the opening keyboard plunks of “Born” and my night was certified perfect. God had heard my prayers and magically included it even if it didn’t appear on the set list. This was followed by Tim climbing into the crowd and singing “Say Something” a few feet away from us. Then came “Sometimes” and the capper of all cappers, “Laid”. Just what you’d expect. The perfect show-ending touch was them inviting about 50 concert goers to come up on stage and get their ya-ya’s out for “Laid”, arguably their most anthemic of all the James barnburners.
(One note of interest to almost nobody. Anyone who's been around me much, knows that I wear my yellow Trashcan Sinatra's t-shirt all the time. One of the guy's who jumped on stage was wearing that same shirt, the only other time I've ever seen it anywhere. Another weird thing is that I had been wearing my shirt all day and planned to wear it to the show, but then wore it to the gym instead. Interesting little coincidence or boring tidbit?)
Being able to cross James off my list of bands to see before I die is pretty major. Any fan had to question whether the day would ever come again. Like I said, God must have been hearing my prayers.