James @ MEN Arena, April 2007
Despite being widely known for little more than a string of hit singles and a corking "Best Of" collection in the mid 1990s, the history of James is both longer and more interesting than most people realise - since forming in 1981 they've had dealings with The Fall, Brian Eno, Tony Wilson and plenty of names more left-field than their fairly safe reputation would suggest. This illustrious career spluttered to a premature halt when lead singer Tim Booth announced his departure from the band in 2001, and mutterings of the group continuing without him came to nothing. James played a farewell gig in the Manchester Evening News Arena in December of that year, the same venue where they played an emotionally-charged comeback gig Saturday just gone.
FUN FACT ABOUT JAMES - During their recent few years off, two of the members of James wrote and recorded stuff with Ainslie Henderson, previously of Fame Academy, who recently released an album and sold it to loads of girls on myspace. It's actually quite a good album, and I spotted him walking past the bar pre-gig. He is really quite teeny weeny in real life. I wanted to pester him after the gig because we'd got VIP passes, but instead of hanging around for the aftershow party we just legged it back to the car so we could go to a fancy dress party in Liverpool.
Given that James have always been to me the epitome of the band who sell most of their CDs in supermarkets, there were a couple of quite startling aspects to the gig. Firstly, rather than being populated with the kind of people who buy their CDs in supermarkets, it was chockablock with scratty gel-fringed Mancs nicking peoples pints and gurning pilled up forty-something lunatics, having odiously shameless and lengthy kissing sessions with their weird partners and clambering between rows like restless toddlers. Hemmed in on all sides by tossers, I was a bit concerned about the gig. The second thing that startled me was Tim Booths appearance - in his absence from the public eye, he's gone from his genial curly-hair and jumpers image to a rather more terrifying bald head, absurd suit and moustache / soul patch combo that leaves him looking like Ben Kingsley playing as the villain in a low-rent comic book adaptation. I pointed this out to my friend Si, who said that Tim Booth ACTUALLY played a villain in "Batman Begins" called Saxophone. It turned out that the villain was actually called Mister Szasz, or something, but it was dead noisy in the gig and I didn't hear him properly.
FUN FACT ABOUT JAMES - Tim Booth sang the lyrics to a new song called "Today" off a bit of paper. Other people to have read off bits of paper at gigs include Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South, and Nigel Pivaro from Coronation Street in some play. There was a letter in the Echo about it. I saw Nigel Pivaro in Panto once and he didn't read off bits of paper, he was dead good.
Anyway, my state of intimidation broken up by occasional amusement (one of the gurning, arms-in-the-air morons slipped while trying to climb over the barrier and landed right on his face and didn't move for about a minute) didn't prevent me from enjoying the gig quite a lot. To a casual fan like myself, it had plenty to captivate when the band lapsed into lesser known songs, most of which were not exactly shit, but definitely too long. Apart from two of them, which definitely were exactly shit, but I've no idea what they were called, so I can't help you there. The gig began with a marching band striding through the venue and up onto the stage, twirling batons and playing some kind of simple but enjoyable phrase on their trumpets and things, and then a big curtain fell down to reveal the band, who joined in with the trumpets to play a really lovely song that again I have no idea as to the title of. I really like spectacle like that at gigs (I'd pick brass bands and whizz-bang fireworks over a "stripped down punk aesthetic" any day of the week), and it provided a suitably epic beginning to proceedings. Booth, despite his unusual new look, is a truly captivating frontman - age has not dulled his inimitable dancing style (there were two points during the gig where I wondered if he was still dancing, or if St Johns Ambulance were going to rush onstage and put a wooden spoon in his mouth) or his powerful voice. His lyrics and vocals have always had a kind of emotional honesty to them which is key to the bands appeal, and there was nothing contrived or irritating about his evident love for Manchester and gratitude at being able to play twenty years worth of songs infront of an appreciative, hometown crowd. Albeit one with a few distinctly suspicious characters mixed in. Actually, thinking about it, there were far less mobile phones being held in the air at this gig than at most others I've been to previously, which probably makes this lot my favourite audience of 2007 so far. Tim Booth clearly didn't any reservations about the crowd, and bounced off the stage to rub his face into their screaming throng during "Say Something", and in the encore went for a walk amongst the seats, not missing a note of the song (must have been a radio mic, or one with a really long wire) as excited Mancunians patted his bald head appreciatively. These memorable moments, arriving in the middle of a stream of just undeniably fucking brilliant songs, created a palpable sense of occasion and I can't imagine many people leaving that night didn't feel fairly uplifted by the whole thing. On the rare occasions where the time, the place, the music and the people are all right (even if the people are scratty pilled up Manc loonies and the music contains a few too many "new ones") stadium gigs can feel just as intimate as any other gigs, and hearing a whole arenas worth of people singing along to a rapturous version of a song as already-wonderful as "Laid" provided a sense of unity and joy that I imagine is a bit similar to what happens when those Americans go mad in Churches and run about. Only instead of going mad about God, everyone was going mad about some balding, middle-aged blokes from Manchester playing a song about shagging. Which is fantastic, really. If you remember the way "24 Hour Party People" (one song early on in the gig was dedicated to Tony Wilson, so presumably he's forgiven them for slighting Factory Records early in their career) imbued the cobbled streets and grim industrial skyline of Manchester a kind of magical, mythical quality, this was sort of similar.
FUN FACT ABOUT JAMES - They are named after founding member Jim Glennie, who plays bass. If other bands were to follow this trend, Radiohead would be called Colin, The Beatles would be called Paul, and The Strokes would be called Nikolai Fraiture (which would actually be brilliant).
I award this gig 4 out of 5 stars - knocking off half a star for the back-projection of a baby in a womb during one song which really freaked me out, and a quarter of a star for each of the shit songs. I think one of them went "KA KA KA KA CHAMEEEEELEON" in the chorus, if that helps. In addition to this short tour, James are working on new material, and have released a singles collection that is probably worth indulging in a bit more hyperbole for - it's "essential listening", as they say. Particularly if, like me, you mostly just sort of dismissed them as post-Britpop lingerers or Asda music. Sorry, James! I'll not do that again.