Manchester legends James are currently in the midst of their ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’ tour, in support of their latest album of the same name, which was released last August. Never a band to take the easy route, they’ve taken on the mammoth task of supporting themselves with an acoustic set each night! We caught their gig at Stoke’s Victoria Hall last Friday – the closest date on the tour to a homecoming.
“8pm sharp” tweeted James HQ before the gig, but timekeeping isn’t one of their strong points and they came on stage 20 minutes late – though the crowd soon understood why when front man Tim Booth hobbled on with crutches. Renowned for his wild dancing and crowd surfing, the entire room empathised with him as he explained how he’d fallen and hurt his leg, resulting in a suitably adapted set list. The lesser played ‘Pressure’s On’ kicked off the acoustic set, with its rhythmic beats highlighting the skills of not just drummer David Baynton-Power, but also new percussionist Chloe Alper – there was a lull of annoying chatter throughout the standing area and this was wittily addressed by multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies, before he launched into a strikingly beautiful violin solo. The heartbreaking ‘All I’m Saying’ – written about the passing of Booth’s best friend – was introduced, though sadly at risk of being abandoned due to the same chatter. Luckily Booth powered through; a combination of vulnerability displayed on his face and sheer passion within his voice presenting to us a moment of pure intimacy that resulted in the track serving as one of the most emotional moments of the evening.
As with all James sets, the acoustic set was peppered with tracks both old and new – a goose bump worthy rendition of ‘Coming Home (Pt.2)’ soared, with its stripped back nature truly benefiting from Alper and trumpeter Andy Diagram’s backing vocals, whilst the heartfelt ‘Broken By The Hurt’ brought an emotional warmth to the set, showcasing the strength of Booth’s vocals. Ending on the seldom ‘Hello‘ from ‘Millionaires’, it felt like no band could follow on from the sublimity that we’d just witnessed, so it was a good job that another James set awaited!
The sound of gently strummed guitars filled the air as the second set began with the haunting slow-burner ‘Out To Get You’ – it’s atmospheric nature serving as the perfect component to the picturesque surroundings of Victoria Hall. The stirring melody of ‘Five-O’ followed, featuring extensive chair-dancing from Booth as it reached its collaborative climax. Poignant moments like this were contrasted throughout the set with classics such as ‘Ring The Bells’ and ‘Waltzing Along’, which both had everybody up dancing (including Booth with his crutches) and were a fine example of the versatility that James’ back catalogue offers.
The band certainly followed through with the promise that there’d be more familiar material in the set list due to Booth’s injury and anthems ‘Come Home’ ‘Laid’, ‘Getting Away With It’ and ‘Sit Down’ were all present – though ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’ track ‘Leviathan‘ and the albums title track in particular both received an equally raucous reaction. Lead by keyboardist Mark Hunter’s jaunty riff, Booth glided through ‘Leviathan’ and though he refused to let his injury affect his energy, the signs were there that he was itching to crowd surf during the exhilarating chorus that followed his hushed delivery of the “ride inside your star-ship, never twice the same trip” verse, in which he stood up close and personal with the front row. The politically charged ‘Heads’ was another example of Hunter’s wizardry, complete with Baynton-Power’s pulsing beat and a driving bass line, courtesy of bassist Jim Glennie. However it was the powerful blast of Diagram’s trumpet midway through that impressed most, sounding as far from traditional as possible as he utilised his loops and effects.
In relation to the venues strict curfew, Booth explained the bands disinterest in wasting time by leaving the stage and returning for an encore – admirably staying onstage and playing through. Live favourite ‘Sometimes’ usually hosts a joyous sing-along in the encore that continues long after the band stop playing and in our review of James’ recent Royal Albert Hall show, we described the unifying ‘Many Faces’ to be a more than suitable replacement whilst ‘Sometimes’ is being rested. ‘Many Faces’ of course lived up to our expectations once again on Friday night as 1500 people held their index fingers in the air whilst repeatedly singing “there’s only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here” back at the band. Always full of surprises, the band then pulled ‘Sometimes’ out of the bag, ending the night with a double whammy of euphoria!
The set up of the current tour adds a different edge to the usual energy of a James gig and in a day and age where nostalgia acts are on the rise, it’s as refreshing as ever to see the band not only still delivering high quality new material, but also taking risks and enjoying themselves.