The Return of James to America
Inside Chicago's Vic Theater in the fall of 2008 and 2010, I was awash in some of the most euphoric moments of my concert going life. I watched the Manchester band James, best known for their 90's pop anthem "Laid", connect with the audience in such a deep and profound manner, I practically want to crawl in a corner and lose myself for a few hours. Towards the end of each show, they pulled out "Sometimes", a song from their 1993 album Laid. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder 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 is a band that provides 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. 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.
Aside from a brief west coast tour in between appearances at Coachella in 2012 and a one-off show in New York, North America hasn't seen a tour by James since 2010, but they've finally returned with a co-headlining stint with the Psychedelic Furs. I can't say enough about the Furs, they're imaginative, visceral and crafted a cinematic catalog that lingers in our minds and bodies, but James is the underdog on this tour. While many know them for "Laid", there is so much more to them than this one song. They're currently touring behind their biting and brilliant Living in Extraordinary Times release and since they reunited in 2005 have a released a steady stream of modern classics from 2008's Hey Ma to 2014's La Petite Mort but the altar at which we all bow is the concert stage. James is one of the most bracing live acts on the planet which is why everyone should be rushing to see this tour which runs through early August.
Their previous tours in 2008 and 2010 were nothing short of electrifying. Every song and note gave the impression that this wasn't a smash-and-grab reunion, but something weightier. The seven members of James during this era (vocalist Tim Booth, bassist Jim Glennie, guitarist Larry Gott, drummer Dave Baynton-Power, trumpet player Andy Diagram, keyboardist Mark Hunter, and multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies) converged as a band of brothers ready to go into battle. The shows perfectly balanced their classic catalog with their newer material from the restrained Laid track "Dream Thrum" which found the band meticulously crawling under the skin of the crowd. The shows were split between timeless anthems and their stupendous new material, which was equally persuasive in concert. Normally one would be disillusioned with such a large amount of new material, but James is an act crafting modern masterpieces that stand 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 while "I Wanna Go Home" was ambient yet interlocked with the crowds emotions which eventually encircled into a paroxysmal jam that proved to be otherworldly.
In 2010 with the release of a double EP The Morning After The Night Before the band tackled these songs and intertwined them into the set so the crowd hung on every note and lyric just like it was an archetypal James song. "Dust Motes" was more revelatory while "Tell Her I Said So" emphasized the band's largely unpretentious music with a textured feel. Booth's lyrics pierced the crowd as they continually sung the chorus at the end ("Here's to a long life"). "It's Hot" emphasized faith and sexual healing ("Life loves to exist"). Booth sells his vocal wailing with panache for the theatrical as his arms stretched far out as if he was communicating with a higher power. "Ten Below" was written from the perspective of a child in English boarding school. One of the keys to the persistent artistic development of James is their penchant to dip into the mindset of their listeners. Who can't relate to being young, fearful, alone and longing for home? The lyric touches on the need to break free and truly find yourself outside of a society full of rigid roles and responsibilities. Just because they've aged doesn't mean they can't stretch back to the past for inspiration and this is one of the keys to their constant evolution. "Crazy" consoled your acute senses while inflicting a sensation of meditative thought ("This magic world, it inspires"). The 2019 sets are focusing on political warfare and communal love with songs such as "Hank", "Heads" and the crowd sing-a-long "Many Faces". James are on a short list of acts who can make their new material feel like forgotten classics that you sing-a-long to because you're so caught up in the energy and emotion of the performance.
Have no fear, while the sets have a heavy dose of new material, the classic songs blaze out of the gate heading for the finish line a decade back as 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 back in 2008. "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.
In 2010, the unexpected "Stutter" made an appearance in a 3-drum attack (with Saul Davies and Mark Hunter assisting) showing the band's instinctual punk tendencies. The penetrating and expressive bass of "Sound" built itself until it placed the audience in a state of dreamy sedation before "Sit Down" and "Laid" took the crowd into overdrive. 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 you inhabit the breathy intimacy of their music allowing it to crawl inside your skin and reverberate in your soul like a lost friend.
For the better part of a decade, James has been at the very top of their game live and on record. Instead of calling it in with monotonous performances or living off their legacy, they're fighting for their lives on the concert stage which they embody like they are in stadiums. What distinguishes great bands from good ones is their innate gift to take a masterful song and expand it on the concert stage. Some acts have vigor, some have meticulousness, some have rage but to defy logic you need all three to take your audience to that next level. James does more than wear their hearts on their sleeves but they find a way to embellish their already breathtaking catalog. To capture this magic in the bottle not just once, but twice is all but unfeasible but James continues to do it with ease. There is a sense of longing, beauty, betrayal and above all else redemption. Broken down to their most basic elements, their music is about the journey life and our ongoing struggle for serenity. Whether you pick up The Best of, Laid, Hey Ma or Living in Extraordinary Times you will find a band capable of providing you with an all-encompassing hug where you forge bonds, heighten hopes and in the end souls are saved. James is one of our most important bands and if you're not listening to them, then it's time to be enlightened on this tour. No other act can create jolting poetic expositions about the shared experience we call life better than James.
James will continue their co-headline tour with the Psychedelic Furs through August 7th
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
The Return of James to America
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