James Live Review
Alive and Amplified at the Vic Theater in Chicago, IL on September 25, 2008
For the last fifteen years, I have continually heard of the lore of the Manchester band James in concert. Since they broke up in 2001 and performed rarely on US shores post 1994, their live shows have become something of legend to fans in North America. The band went their own ways at the end of 2001 and not seeing them live was always one of my great regrets…until now. Inside the Vic Theater in Chicago on a seasonably warm fall night, a sold-out crowd welcomed James back for their first Chicago show in well over a decade. The legend was true; James is one of the most electrifying live bands on the planet and their two-hour show showcased them at their preeminent. As they performed the serendipitous "Bubbles" from their luminous new album, Hey Ma, the band rippled as a dazzling unit in full control of their prowess and as singer Tim Booth crooned the lyrics "I'm Alive", it could have been a mantra for their triumphant return.
This isn't a smash-and-grab reunion, it's weightier than that. It's not even a reunion; it's the continuation of a band who simply took six years off. But what makes their reformation all that more inspired is that it reunites the Seven line-up which hasn't performed live since 1992. Hired hands, while technically proficient lack the history of hunger that the original members bring. These seven members of James were put on this Earth for one defining purpose; to be a member of James. Vocalist Tim Booth, bassist Jim Glennie, guitarist Larry Gott (who left in 1995), drummer Dave Baynton-Power, trumpet player Andy Diagram (who left in 1992), keyboardist Mark Hunter, and multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies converged as a band of brothers ready to go into battle onstage in Chicago.
Commencing their first show in Chicago is well over a decade, the restrained Laid track "Dream Thrum" found the band meticulously crawling under the skin of the crowd. Few acts on the planet could begin a concert with a whisper and simultaneous seduce and maintain complete control over the crowd. All eyes started at them in rapt attention. Immediately upon its conclusion, "She's A Star", from the esoteric Whiplash lit up the club before the dreamy new number "Oh My Heart" poured off the stage into the crowd. Booth introduced the song as "When the heart breaks, it becomes something beautiful…like a butterfly" and the performance was just that…beautiful.
The remainder of the evening was split between timeless anthems and their walloping new material, which was equally persuasive in concert. Normally one would be disillusioned with such a large amount of new material, but Hey Ma is a modern masterpiece that stands shoulder to shoulder with their greatest hits. The brazen "Waterfall" showcased a wall of sound that was raucous, "Whiteboy" was driving, fierce and scalding featuring Tim Booth on cowbell (Christopher Walken would be proud).The sultry "Upside" was beauteous and the silence before the final chorus offered a moment to contemplate before they picked right back up with the detonating chorus. The political fireball of "Hey Ma" flexed arena rock muscle. "I Wanna Go Home" was ambient yet interlocked with the crowds emotions which eventually encircled into a paroxysmal jam that proved to be otherworldly.
The classic songs blazed out of the gate heading for the finish line as the band ripped through them as if they never took a career pause. The band inhabited "Ring the Bells" while "Say Something" found Booth standing in the crowd against a small barrier in front of his stage where he delicately balanced himself with the help of the crowd who were all too willing to assist as their voices engulfed the club. "Five-O" embodied the spirit of Brian Eno's lush production at its best as the violin on this number, by Saul Davis, glistened with stark minimalism. "Out To Get Me" found a desperate internal atmosphere where the band was able to replicate the album sound brilliantly with reverberation in which the crowd wailed in approval as Booth spoke the magic words of "Human touch is what I need, what I need, what I need" and the audience received just that. "Sound" was ambitious and forceful in a dazzling ten minute performance. For a band whose core sound is ambient and atmospheric, there is no way they should be as effective on stage, but they defy expectations. The seven members are pieces of one puzzle and together they perform these songs with breathtaking abandon. One can only hope that at least a few of these shows were professionally recorded as these performances and arrangements are defining.
The two warhorses that raised the roof were "Sit Down" and their most popular US hit "Laid", once again showcasing the sterling delivery of this band who manages to perform each song to perfection while adding enough nuances to the performance to make it wholly unique. As a live entity, their peak period was either the Seven tour or their 1997-98 period which barely brushed the US shores. However, this incarnation of the group has surpassed both of those eras. Their best anthems build up to a wailing and crushing arms in the air crescendos which take alternate roads and have abrupt shifts, but they never once lost the crowd and due to some incandescent performances and meticulous pacing, they owned the crowd from the word "go". Watching James in such a small club was a treat. This is an arena band that brought the same presence and determination with them. There was a breathy intimacy to their music in this atmosphere, however, even if it had been an arena, I still feel as if they would have found a way to dig beneath the surface and crawl inside your skin as every song engulfed the crowd and reverberated in your soul like a lost friend. Their catalog, like Queen's, is one of greatest in terms of singles. They performed like a band that had everything to lose as if their lives depended on it. Weighty emotions poured off the stage as the seven members became one.
The encore was a trio of songs beginning with "On Top of the World" which found Tim Booth in an opera box singing to the upper regions of the crowd, always the consummate showman. Throughout the entire performance, Booth's spastic movies were as infectious as the band's stalwart melodies, there are no words to express his stage movements, and they truly need to be seen to be believed. "Getting Away With It", from 2001's underrated Pleased To Meet You found the crowd clapping along to a song that technically was never released on American shores aside from a live album.
Up to this moment, the show stood as one of the defining live performances not just of 2008, but of the last decade, but they pulled out another ace-in-the-hole just when it seemed as if they had used them all up. With the plucking of a few plaintive strings and a stark vocal by Booth, they adroitly began "Sometimes". The first verse and chorus were restrained in an inventive new arrangement as the crowd sung along to every last word. Before the second verse, Baynton-Power's machine gun drums and Davies' sprinting acoustic guitar charged into the furious well known arrangement. Booth's gut wrenching vocals were an avalanche of emotions. The crowd reached their apex as the band nearly finished the song when the 1,300 souls in attendance began to chant the chorus repeatedly for almost five-minutes as the band watched in awe; "Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul". This was goose bump inducing. Eventually, the band delivered a slamming reprise that left everyone breathless and grasping for air. This wasn't merely a memorable moment, it was one of those moments where life comes into focus for a few brief seconds. The music not just takes you away, but wraps around you like your favorite childhood blanket offering not just sound advice but comfort.
"Sometimes" is a song about breaking down disguises. Music has a way of allowing us to reflect and ponder things we never considered and to unfold the mysteries of life. The most mercurial mysteries are those of the human heart. James provided the keys for us to unlock the mysteries; whether we unlock the door is our choice. As the band took their bows, they disappeared into the backstage darkness, the lights came on, but the feeling of the entire show lingered with me…and still does.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
Setlist from Chicago 9/25/08:
She's A Star
Oh My Heart
Ring the Bells
Want to Go Home
Out to Get You
Top fo the World
Getting Away With It
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