Manchester M.E.N. Arena 18th December 2010

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Born Of Frustration, Seven, Ring The Bells, Tell Her I Said So, PS, Lookaway, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), Jam J, Out To Get You, I Wanna Go Home, Sit Down, Rabbit Hole, Just Like Fred Astaire, Laid, Sound, Stutter, Say Something, Tomorrow, Sometimes.

Review by takemeanywhere

James and December is like crumble and custard, essential for good living. The rare years when the band don’t play just before Christmas feel like some kind of betrayal, similar to the grinch turning up with his joy stealing tendencies. Tonight’s show is surrounded by challenges, or, more accurately, snow. At least two of the band are struggling with (man) ‘flu and another member’s back is creaking like a rusty gate. The icy conditions also mean that many people will not make it to Manchester tonight and it’s a real shame to see a few empty seats. But, as the old saying goes, the show must go on.

So, what will James treat us to tonight? The hits? The new songs? The rarities? With this band, knowledge of what has been played on previous nights gives scant clue as to what might be aired tonight. Most bands write a setlist at the start of a tour and stick with it rigidly, throughout. James are not most bands and have a mightily impressive sixty songs, rehearsed and ready to plunder. The setlist debate, tedious as it is, will rumble on as long as James play live shows. All arguments become redundant, however, as the opening notes of Born of Frustration fill the cavernous space. This is the song that first saw James labelled as a ‘stadium rock’ band, as if that should be seen as a criticism. Tim Booth chooses to go for a wander amongst the crowd, as is his wont and is replaced front of stage by trumpet player, Andy Diagram.

Seven is the hit that never was, released just two days after James played to thirty thousand people at Alton Towers but bewilderingly failing to make the top forty. Chart positions matter not here, as Booth melts ten thousand hearts with the affirmation that “Love can change anything”. By the time Mark Hunter’s keyboard heavy intro to Ring The Bells kicks in, it is clear that James have the Manchester crowd in their pockets. They could play Showaddywaddy covers for the rest of the night and it would still be deemed a success. They don’t, of course. Guitarist, Larry Gott announces that “Manchester likes this one” and it can only mean one thing, it’s that time again. Come Home usually opens Manchester shows but tonight it marks the end of the first cluster of hits, before the band slow things right down.

P.S. makes a welcome return to the setlist, Booth whispering its gorgeous story over Gott‘s understated slide guitar. Suddenly, there is singing in the arena and it isn’t coming from the stage. It isn’t football style chanting either, but instead the combined vocal talents of the Manchester Consort, a choir of young people, who join the band for a trio of songs from this year’s The Morning After mini-album. They sing their way to the stage before proceeding to add magic dust to Got The Shakes. Prior to playing Tell Her I Said So, Booth reminds us of the occasion when he introduced us all to his mum at this same venue, before going on to explain that she is now ninety years of age and in a nursing home. The lyric reads like a conversation between Booth and his mum and deals with the issue of families having to put loved ones into care. Like many of his recent lyrics, it sees Booth at his most direct and intensely personal best. Lookaway, a song which sees Booth play acoustic guitar to a Manchester crowd for the very first time benefits from the choir’s presence and the outro is simply magnificent. I was in the building and the walls (almost) came crashing down.

A couple of hits are required now and Say Something gets the singalong going again. Just Like Fred Astaire is dedicated to Gott’s father, on the occasion of his eighty-eighth birthday. He is watching his son play live for only the second time ever and beams as the spotlight shines on him. The song itself is pure beauty and a rare, out-and-out love song by the band. With the audience back in Booth’s back pocket, it‘s time to move left again. Jam J was actually a single, being a double a-side, but was ignored for radio play in favour of the flipside (Say Something) and it certainly seems to wrong-foot the crowd. “Come on Jimmy” urges Gott of the bass player, as if any such encouragement is required. I Wanna Go Home is a modern day classic and is greeted as such. “I need to dance” sings Booth and it is clear that the people of Manchester agree.
In the late eighties, during a jamming session, James wrote a song in twenty-minutes before falling about laughing at the simplicity of it all. That song is Sit Down. It became their biggest hit single and their path to the big time but at the same time their nemesis, an albatross, even. They have tried so many ways of playing the song and even not playing it at all, for a spell. Tonight it is stripped down and sublime. The band group together at the front of the stage and playing it in this way dictates that the crowd listen rather than join in. It’s like hearing the song anew and by its conclusion, I am of the opinion that it just could be the best lyric of the last century. Out To Get You is a live favourite and has been a staple in the set since 1992. The song never fails to ignite and Saul Davies’ violin solo is mesmerising. Rabbit Hole is another song lifted from The Morning After, Booth bravely keeping it in the set, despite struggling to hit the high notes during the sound check. Whatever ‘flu remedy he has taken before the gig ensures that it is alright on the night. Far better than alright, in fact.

A trio of mega-hits threatens to lift the roof off the arena. She’s A Star and Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) delight, whilst Sound throbs and pulsates. Typically, James end the main set with Stutter, a song written over a quarter of a century ago. A studio recording of this song has never been released and yet it fits into the live set like a glove. Dave Baynton-Power’s tribal drumming perfectly complements Glennie’s rumbling bassline as the song spirals inexorably into orbit. The band leave to a rapturous ovation and people start to debate what is still to come. All hits, surely? Oh no.

The curveballs ain’t done with yet. Dust Motes is the final song of the night to be lifted from the recent mini-album and is a gorgeous way to start an encore. The choir return for a frenetic Sometimes and when the crowd take on the closing refrain, unprompted, it‘s party time. For Gold Mother the band and choir are joined onstage by a tribe of dancers, picked from the audience. The young singers take the ‘silence, shut up’ section of the song to new heights, which is quite a feat to achieve. At this same venue, back in 1999, James played beyond the curfew and were fined for the privilege. Clearly, the coffers are not as full eleven years on and with a minute remaining, it seems that they will have to leave the stage. Helpfully, a man emerges from the side of stage, similar to the shopkeeper appearing in Mr Benn, and allows for one more song. Of course, that song is Laid and arms start to flail all around the arena, as the curtain comes down, not just on the night but on a hugely successful year for James.

It is perhaps a little clichéd to declare the night as a triumph over adversity, although that would not be a dishonest summary. I prefer to reflect on a band at the absolute peak of their powers, playing a perfect mix of old and new. The Manchester night is freezing cold but the hearts of those present are warmed sufficiently by the joyous majesty of what they have witnessed to melt away all thoughts of the hazardous journey to come, if not the snow itself. Best live band on the planet? Very probably. Best night out you could possibly have in the month of December? You betcha.

Review by

There’s not much you can say about this show. It could have been cancelled for a number of reasons – Tim’s illness which was affecting him to the point he blacked out backstage before the gig, Larry’s back, the snow which meant that a lot of people didn’t make the show because of the transport chaos (those that missed it, I feel your pain, having missed the 1990 G-Mex gig) but it’s almost as if the circumstances make this something extra special, another victory over adversity that James have taken on so many times in their career.

Opening the show are the rather wonderful local band Frazer King, hand-picked by Jim Glennie. They strut the stage as if they own it, the singer attempts to go down into the crowd in the middle of one song and can’t get back up. They’re worth checking out. The Pigeon Detectives follow and then it’s time for the main event. The venue has now thankfully filled out quite well, dispelling fears of a half-empty weather-affected crowd.

From the start the atmosphere is electric, Andy prowling the stage and coming to the podium at the front, his trumpet acting more like a call to arms or prayer rather than part of a song. Tim gets down onto the barrier and, uncharacteristically for the enormodromes, the sound is brilliant too. Seven and Ring The Bells mean there’s no let up in pace. The lighting is made for this venue, wonderful reds, blues and yellows merging together and there’s some clever effects on the big screens as well.

“Manchester likes this one” Larry says before the familiar opening bars of Come Home ring out. By necessity, some of the more obscure songs that would test Tim’s voice to its limits, aren’t played tonight, but the show is more about celebration, the coming home, that noone seems to care too much. PS is beautiful, edgy, piercing and dripping with emotion.

That said about the setlist, we do get five-eighths of The Morning After tonight and it demonstrates that it’s the stronger of the two mini-albums. Got The Shakes sees the Manchester Consort Choir join James on stage walking on whilst singing the backing to the song. They add something to the song that was missing when it was played in Leicester, but their real impact is seen on the next two songs Tell Her I Said So and Lookaway, adding even more to the two highlights from the newer material on this tour. The latter has some stunning interplay on the vocals between Tim and the choir.

Say Something gets the crowd going wild and Saul out at the front of the stage with his violin, before Larry dedicates Just Like Fred Astaire to his Dad, who is watching James for the second time, and for his Mum, even though she had died fifteen years earlier. It’s a very poignant moment and the song is a dedication of pure love.

Jam J has been a big highlight on this tour, a very welcome resurrection. The whole arena is lit up by the strobe effects as Jim’s bass leads the band through the excitement and fire of the song. Things are slowed down briefly for the opening of I Wanna Go Home, before it explodes into life at the end. Sit Down, as ever, has the whole place up, singing, clapping and the song that could be the biggest cliche of the night (and the tour) is turned into something quite magnificent, yet wonderfully simple. It’s emotional and Out To Get You just takes it further and allows Saul again to show off his improvisational prowess on the violin, which is still chronically underused on their recorded work. Rabbit Hole is simply exquisite. It’s a brave song to take to a venue of this size as it’s quite fragile, but it pierces the air and the crowd watch on in awe, especially as Tim battles his throat demons to deliver it.

She’s A Star, often one of the songs delivered straight without much chance to improvise, is perfect for the occasion and leads into the singalong of Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), before an as-ever stunning, but different, version of Sound. The coup-de-grace, one of the oldest songs they’ve written, Stutter finishes the main set with a series of musical collisions, flashes and rolls of light.

Coming back on, the band, ever one to take some risks, starts the encore with Dust Motes, probably dropped from the set on previous nights to protect Tim’s voice from his illness. It resonates around the arena and is a beautiful beautiful song. Sometimes sees the choir come back on and take over the refrain before it’s left to the audience to finish the song off. And then we get Gold Mother, which is total chaos with the choir coming down from the back to sing a song they don’t really know amongst the dancers. It’s a shame the security at the arena are such dicks – yellow coats obviously turn you into some sort of humourless personality-free android. It then seems we are going to be denied the final song by the thought police that thinks 11pm is late enough to send everyone home to bed, but sense takes control and the band rip through an equally chaotic version of Laid, with the crowd still on stage.

A wonderful wonderful emotive night. Manchester gigs are sometimes a bit of a let-down because of the weight of expectations, the homecoming feel, some elements of the crowd. Last night was the best I’ve seen them in Manchester, even over some of the early gigs, the 89 and 97 Apollo gigs – words can’t describe how good they were. It was a very special, extremely emotional night and a fitting way to end a magnificent tour, in which the band fought illness, injury and the elements.

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