Sunday 20 April 2008

you can't catch love with a net or a gun....

James @ New Theatre, Oxford - 19th April 2008

When Tim Booth left James in 2001, things were looking bad. In spite of a string of hit singles and albums, it looked as though they were doomed to be seen as a band that nearly had it all but never quite made it. The other members of the band vowed to continue, but Booth was the voice and public face of the band, and it was clear that it was effectively over. I was sad. They were a band that had always tried to walk their own path, often in the face of prevailing musical trends, and although this had probably cost them in terms of record sales, it had meant that they had consistently been one of the only bands that were really worth listening to. I'd seen them performing many times, and I was sad that after their farewell tour, I was never going to see them live again.

One of the best gigs I have ever attended was the night that James played Oxford Poly back in the summer of 1998. It was a Thursday night, and I took advantage of a meeting in Wellingborough to nip down to Oxford to meet up with some friends for the concert. It was the night before the band were due to play Glastonbury and this was a warm-up gig before the main event on the Pyramid Stage the following evening. They were sensational. It probably helped that this was the year that they released their Greatest Hits album (a UK number one), and so they played a set consisting of their most famous songs, but they were on fire. It was an absolutely brilliant gig. I drove home that night and was working the next day, but it was worth all the hassle getting there and the late night hack back up the A43 and M1.

Fast forward ten years and I was completely unaware that any kind of a reunion was on the cards until I saw an advert for the gig in a music magazine. When I looked closer and saw that James were due to play a date in Oxford on a Saturday night, it seemed like destiny was calling to me. Even better news was that not only had the band got back together, but they had also recorded some new material. The new album, "Hey Ma", was released at the beginning of April. Again, I was taken by surprise, and only discovered its existence after it had actually been released. Given the set they played on Saturday night, I'm very glad that I spotted it at all.

The New Theatre in Oxford is a funny place to watch a band. It's a proper, old-school theatre, with plush velvet covered seats and little plastic opera glasses attached to the back of the seat in front of you. It's no doubt a great place to watch a play, but it's hardly an ideal place to watch a gig. Apart from anything else, beer is selling at the rather eye-watering insult price of £6.20 a pint. Ouch. James came onto the stage to a rapturous reception, and - as it their wont - opened their set with a slow one, "Top of the World". It's a lovely song and a good way to start, but in a venue like this, the result is that everyone sat back down in their seats. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't think that this is any way to watch a gig. Luckily they launched straight into "Born of Frustration" from there, and we all stood back up again and didn't sit back down for the rest of the gig.

James first came together in 1981, and the line up here is the "classic" seven that recorded "Gold Mother" back in 1990. Tim Booth is now 48 years old, and Larry Gott is 50. How do they look all this time later? Well, pretty good actually. As you would probably expect, several members of the band now have rather less hair than they used to, and by his own lyrical admission, Tim Booth's shaven head now makes him look more and more like Yul Brynner than ever. Otherwise though, they all look pretty good. Well, with the possible exception of trumpeter Andy Diagram anyway... who for reasons probably best known only to himself takes to the stage wearing a Laura Ashley frock.... Otherwise, it's all good though. Some things, it seems never change, and Saul Davies seems to spend much of the set trying to muscle in on Tim Booth's position at the centre of the stage. Whether he's playing the guitar or the violin, he seems to wander around the stage as though he were some kind of a stork, lifting his legs high and walking slightly aggressively towards other members of the band and staring them down as he plays. He's a small man, and he looks more like a frustrated frontman than ever. Musically, they sound great. James have always had a rather distinctive sound, led as much by the trumpet as they are by the guitars, and the way that the seven different members combine with each other is always a pleasure to behold. Booth too is on fine form. He's always had a supple voice, but it's always a delight to watch someone singing a song as potentially difficult as "She's A Star" with such ease, and his whole range of whoops and hollers are all very much in place. So too are his usual stage props: the megaphone, the maracas, the torch that he shines out into the crowd.

For me, the pacing of the set was wrong. After that great start, the middle section of the set was comprised almost entirely of new songs. "Hey Ma" is a decent album, and if anything the songs improved live. "Oh My Heart" is up there with almost anything James have done in the past, and "Waterfall", "Upside", "Hey Ma", "Semaphore", "Whiteboy" and some of the others hold their ground against some of the old favourites and are rapturously received by most of the crowd. They sounded good, but playing so many new songs in a row inevitably took away some of the momentum from the gig. I suppose that's the price we have to pay for James wanting to be more than just a nostalgia act. They haven't got back together just to play the old hits and to make a bit of easy money. They're still very much a going concern and they have an album of new and interesting material to play. It's a small price to pay, really, and towards the end of the gig, Tim Booth thanks us for our patience and we are amply rewarded with storming versions of classics like "Tomorrow", "Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)", "Come Home", "She's A Star", "Ring the Bells", "Sound" and encores of "Say Something" and a beautiful version of "Sometimes".

We don't get "Sit Down" or "Laid", and we don't get anything at all from the really very good "Millionaires" album, but I'm still more than happy. For me, "Sometimes" is the song that best epitomises James. It's an unusual song, with the verses more spoken than sung, but it also manages to combine the electrifying description of an awesome storm with the intensely personal refrain of the chorus; the elemental and the personal:

When I look deep into your eyes
I swear I can see your soul"

Tonight, the band orchestrate a crowd singalong at the end of the song that leads to a triumphant and emotional crescendo that seems to even move the band themselves.

It's rather cruelly been said that James are a band that have sold more t-shirts than records. Well, there are certainly a lot of t-shirts on display in the crowd, but on this evidence there's plenty of life in these particular old dogs just yet. Please, please let them be playing Glastonbury this year. They're a fantastic band and I haven't had enough of them just yet.

Verdict: 8 / 10
Mark's similarly enthusiastic review of their London gig can be found here.

Setlist : Top Of The World, Born Of Frustration, Oh My Heart, Boom Boom, Ring The Bells, Hey Ma, Bubbles, Come Home, Of Monsters And Heroes And Men, I Wanna Go Home, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), Waterfall, Whiteboy, She's A Star, Sound. Tomorrow. Say Something, Upside, Sometimes


  1. Never seen them live but yes, they are one of those bands which hold a special (slightly odd) place in my heart.

    I was never really into them until I heard Sometimes playing at my then girlfriends flat. Laid quickly became one of the albums of that summer for us and has remained a little played treasure.

  2. I've seen them a few times, and have always enjoyed them, but never more than the first time in 1991 when they were amazing.

    But never mind that. At that gig, a random bloke from the crowd got on stage and kissed Tim Booth. I remember admiring his shirt, and his nerve. Six months later, he appeared on my course at university having transferred from something else, and shortly after that, we were a couple for two years. (He dropped out of university and moved to London to seek his fortune, if you're interested.)

    Curiously, that same guy was also instrumental in turning my fondness for The Smiths into a real passion.

    Music, hey?