You’re playing a homecoming gig to 8,000 fans in the city centre. What tune do you start with? Do you pull out one of the big guns and start the night off with a safe banker? Just Like Fred Astaire? She’s A Star? SIT *bloody* DOWN? Yes? No. Not James. In fact, those three songs aren’t heard at any point in tonight’s barnstorming set.
Their choice of opener is Out To Get You, first song on the 1993 album Laid. A slow burner that builds to a rousing finish, it outlines the confidence the band has in their back catalogue, and the trust they have in their fans. And it’s rightly placed. There are fans here from all periods in James’s long history, and the reception after this first song is deafening.
The atmosphere in Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl is electric. Frontman Tim Booth sets his stall out early and, during the third song (a cracking version of the underrated Heavens from the Seven album), he steps down from the stage and leaps up onto the barrier, leaning over the crowd, holding hands, making a connection. Later in the set he asks that people refrain from sticking phones in his face when he comes to the crowd; he’s making a genuine attempt to connect with the audience. To a large extent, they respect his request.
They follow a blistering rendering of Ring the Bells with a couple of their early songs which demonstrate the band’s traditional English folk leanings with a smattering of punk to spare – What’s The World, once covered by The Smiths (whom James supported on the 1985 Meat is Murder tour) and the wonderful Hymn From A Village. Each song sounds as fresh as the day it was written.
Jam-J is a welcome surprise. In 1994, Brian Eno produced the experimental Wah Wah and here we are treated to a version that takes no prisoners. The imposing Dave Baynton-Power sits upright at the kit and batters it like it has insulted his pint. Founder member Jim Glennie loads his bass with enough distortion to rattle your fillings, and Booth does a passable Mark E Smith. That’s a good thing, by the way.
The set is littered with songs from the new album La Petite Mort. Curse Curse and Frozen Britain are particular highlights for me, and all the new songs seem to have the crowd singing along like the album’s been out for months. The hardcore fans are out in force tonight and have obviously had the new record on heavy repeat.
I used to be a hardcore fan – in the early 90s, me and my best mate were obsessed with this band – but over the course of the late nineties and 2000s, I lost touch with what they were doing. It just wasn’t my thing.
When the euphoric Sometimes – which surely has the most complex sing-along verses in popular music – is followed immediately by Sound, the 16-year-old me is beside himself.
With a closing trio of Tomorrow, Laid and then the mighty Johnny Yen, I’ve fallen in love with James all over again. And I’m not alone.
Where: Castlefield Bowl, Manchester
When: July, 2014 and touring
More info: www.wearejames.com