All entries for May 2007

May 27, 2007

The James Files Part 2: Reminds me of being in Nam. Vietnam? No, Nambucca.

The author apologises for the lack of activity on this blog lately, but has been meaning to write up his experiences on the James tour for about a month now, but it’s such a big undertaking I kept putting it off, but also didn’t want to start blogging anything else until it was done. Finally then, here is part two. Hopefully the third (and probably final) part will be finished over the bank holiday


The story of getting to this gig is almost as interesting as the gig itself. Another warm-up gig at the same venue as the previous gig in Hoxton was announced just four days before. Calls are made, texts are sent, London accommodation arranged and it turns out a whole bunch of people who I know are going and I arrange, including an ex-girlfriend I haven’t seen since we broke up five years ago. And then the day before the gig, it’s cancelled. Apparently, lead singer Tim Booth has a shoulder injury and can’t risk performing lest he worsens it. The observant amongst you might now be wondering exactly how the vocal chords are linked to the shoulder, and how on earth singing could possibly risk damaging it anymore than doing… well anything else. You would of course be correct but, dear reader, may I offer you a piece of advice: don’t ever express such an opinion on a message board full of James fans should you value your sanity as it turns out that by expressing such an opinion you’re an evil selfish bastard that wants the band to hurt themselves and get the tour cancelled. It’s so obvious in retrospect I don’t know what I was thinking, for a moment I forgot that unmitigated positivity about the band is the only acceptable way to think, citizen! (some of the more pejorative posts towards me on there have since been removed)

But then the one thing that no-one predicted, that came completely out of leftfield, happened. It turns out Tim Booth is actually the secret identity of top superhero and X-Man Wolverine!

Well not exactly. But somehow Tim’s shoulder got better and the gig was rescheduled (albeit in a different London venue) for two days later! I personally contend that a mutant healing factor was the only plausible explanation but you might think differently. So we’re back to getting down to London again, except none of the people who I knew before were able to go anymore, and I’d just alienated all the other fans I “sort of” knew on the James message board by doing what Apple computer adverts told you to do in the late 1990s. Except the ex-girlfriend, who was also in a similar position. I’m not sure if you can will something to be ‘not awkward’ by sheer strength of mind alone, but if you can, I did.

It wasn’t awkward. In fact it was an entirely pleasant evening and my worries were only indicative of my social paranoia. Or at the very least she’s still capable of filling any of the awkward conversational silences I tend to generate with some random thought, which on reflection is probably half the reason I fell for her in the first place.

Anyways: gig. The Hoxton gig , on reflection, was pretty poor. Don’t get me wrong, I had the most wonderful time, to finally see these people back together again performing the soundtrack of my late teenage years was just amazing. But technically, they were a bit shit. If I was reviewing the gig for the NME, I’d slag them off. Mostly because they’re not called “The James” and they’ve been together for more than thirty minutes, but also partly because they were under-rehearsed and all over the place. This would be their real chance to prove themselves: with the tour just around the corner, most of the important elements should be in place now, and we should be seeing a nearly finished product, if we’re not, we’re in trouble.

As soon as we get into the venue we rush through the bar area to the front of the stage, along with a bunch of other keen fans. One of the staff members looks at us with pity and says “they won’t be on for around another hour you know”. “An hour?”, we reply “Tsk, young man! In our day we’d queue for six hours outside the doors of Wembley Arena in the cold December weather before they even let us in, and then we’d stand at the front and wait another two and half hours, part of it spent watching Turin Brakes! Turin Brakes I say! An hour! Luxury!”. And by that I mean we nodded our heads and said “okay”.

The time passes pretty quickly and before we know it they’re on stage. And they’re playing Seven again, which sounds better but still doesn’t work without Andy. And then it’s Play Dead and this time the three-way vocal harmony at the end is spine-tinglingly perfect. Says Booth “we fucking nailed that vocal”. Yes boys, you did. Then funky new single “Who Are You?” gets its second live outing, following by Fine and Say Something… and this is all seeming a little over-familiar. For a band that claimed to be rehearsing 40 different songs so they could play a different set every night on tour, that’s five songs in a row they’ve played that they did just two weeks ago. I start to worry that while they might talk about doing loads of different stuff, they’re slipping into the easy option of playing the same set every night…

And then they play Chain Mail. A track from one of the early vinyl singles that hasn’t been done live in probably over a decade. And what’s really funny is this is the one song a friend of mine used to ‘heckle’ the band with on the big arena tours in a ‘lets shout out an obscure song name just to see their reaction’ fashion. Part of me wonders if he somehow influenced them on a subliminal level. This is swiftly followed by Really Hard, another ‘really old’ song, but unlike Chain Mail, would be perfectly at home on any of the latter albums, it being one of the few softer and balladic songs from the first few albums. Of these two tracks, Chain Mail is significantly reworked but maintains the stattaco, aggressive stylings of the original track, while Really Hard just sounds like a slightly fuller version of the album track, but beautiful nonetheless.

When Booth did an interview a few years back he was asked if he’d ever rejoin James: his answer was that while he couldn’t see himself doing so right now, he wouldn’t rule it out again in the future, but if he did they’d have to do it right, “like how Springsteen did it”, reworking the songs and writing new stuff to make it worthwhile. We’ve heard the new stuff, and I guess Chain Mail could be seen as a reworking, but it felt more out of necessity (in it’s original form it just doesn’t suit 2007 James). What comes next is truly a revelation. I’ve always liked She’s a Star as a song, but all songs can suffer from over-exposure, and as someone who got into James in 1998, She’s a Star was probably the one that suffered most. It was the 1997 comeback ‘hit’ and as such for the next four years it became the band’s go-to song when they needed a familiar track for a radio session or TV appearance or to pick up the slack in a live set. I believe the reasoning must go something like: “Sit Down is the only song we’re known for, so we can’t play that, so lets do She’s a Star until people are heartily sick of that one too”.

But this isn’t that song.

It’s soaring and beautiful and ten times better than the original. The beginning is slowed down and held back, the beautiful slide guitar emphasised (despite Larry Gott helping write the track, it’s the first time he’s performed it live), with a subtle underlay of piano at the bridge, the rhythm section only softly crashing in for the chorus before retreating for the second verse. It’s wonderful, and by the time the slide guitar solo kicks in at the end I’m grinning from ear to ear, truly the highlight of the night.

Riders seems somewhat tame in comparison, although another new song, Upside, with Tim reading the lyrics off a sheet of paper is a highlight, and then they play Heavens. I’ve only seen them play this live once before, at the first James gig I ever went to in 1998, and that was the first time I’d ever heard it. I’m far more familiar with it now, and seeing it live is a treat. A third new song gets its second live airing: Chameleon is a lot tighter than at Hoxton. Then they play Don’t Wait That Long which is just stunning. I’d never seen it done live other than via the Seven Live video and it was just perfect. At this point I should point out that unlike at Hoxton, from where I was stood I couldn’t see the set list on the stage, and while I could have leant over to catch a glimpse had I wanted, I far preferred it this way – the start of each song was a treat, the slow realisation that ‘they can’t be playing that can they? No it can’t b…. oh my god it is!’. At every other gig you have some idea what a band will play: you know the standards, and if you follow them on the internet you know what they’ve been playing at other tour dates. Here we had no clue what to expect, and it was all the better for it.

How Was It For You? Followed which again, I’ve only seen done live once before – it would seem to be the red-headed child of the Best Of album, despite appearing on there and being one of my favourites, it rarely made the setlists of the big arena tours. And just as it reaches the end, the venue is plunged into darkness and the sound goes out. Although at most James gigs something goes wrong, that was impressive for even them: “we didn’t know how to end the song so we figured we’d do that”.

Getting Away With It ends the main set, which is so-so but suffered ‘She’s a Star syndrome’ in latter years and hasn’t really be re-worked. But the encore featured Gold Mother which was brilliant. I’ve never been a fan of the song on record but have to admit it truly comes alive when done live. Tomorrow is next and is workmanlike but nothing special, and Sometimes ends it all which…meh. I’ve never liked it that much, it’s just too one-note and never really goes anywhere, and while Tim was touring solo I fell in love with the stripped down version his new band did, so this just doesn’t resonate. But I don’t care as the rest of the night was so awesome.

The first gig I was just glad to have them back, whether they were any good or not. This time I knew they were good, so I could be mad obsessed about them again without hiding the secret shame of them actually being a bit poor. Hurrah.

In part three: The tour. Four gigs in five days, me getting very tired, and why my attitude towards Sometimes has changed a fair bit…

May 2007

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