Liverpool Arena 10th December 2016
Finishing off a year in which their fourteenth studio album almost reached the top spot (only kept off by the behemoth that is Adele), James teamed up with fellow ‘Madchester’ outsiders The Charlatans (even though they don’t hail from the town) for a massive one-off arena show that delighted both sets of fans.
A last minute addition to the evening’s entertainment was The Slow Readers Club, who won over many new fans thanks to their support slots with James earlier in the year. Unfortunately, they were made to perform on the venue concourse, meaning many attendees (particularly those in the standing area) missed out on what was by all accounts another spirited set from the unsigned band.
By the time The Charlatans hit the stage, the venue is almost full. It’s clear the band still has a devout following. It’s made even more apparent by the reaction to each track. The crowd bounce, they singalong and more importantly, they enjoy every second that the group is on stage. Frontman Tim Burgess is undoubtedly a likeable chap, almost always smiling and easy to watch. Live tweeting a gig may break down some barriers between ‘them and us,’ but unfortunately, at a concert of this magnitude it’s a little distracting and threatens to take away from the band’s performance at times.
The group’s biggest tracks are all present and correct: North Country Boy, The Only One I Know, Just When You’re Thinking Things Over and more – as well as songs from their most current album, Modern Nature. It was no secret that there was to be a collaboration of some sort between the two bands during the evening (in the end, there was two), and before the end of their hour-long set, Burgess beckons onstage the other Tim – Booth – and James’ trumpet player extraordinaire Andy Diagram for a rendition of Echo and the Bunnymen’s Rescue. Unfortunately, it was a massive misjudgement. Not least as they had to read the lyrics, but also it was terribly under-rehearsed that it was in danger of falling apart at any second. It appeared there were large portions of the crowd who apparently didn’t know the track either, but swept away with the moment and the uniqueness of the evening, still very much enjoyed it – proof, perhaps, of the band’s talent and legacy.
If The Charlatans left the crowd a little disappointed (some sections that they didn’t play long enough, some that they didn’t play to their potential), then it only meant that James had a bigger and harder task to fulfil.
Arriving on stage with Waltzing Along, a Top 30 single from the 1997 Whiplash album, and a song that hasn’t appeared in the band’s set much this year. It’s greeted as though it was a long-lost masterpiece and has the whole arena singing along. They follow this up in quick succession with a pair of tracks from their latest opus, Girl at the End of the World, To My Surprise – dedicated to Donald Trump and featuring the refrain ‘Were you just born an asshole’ – and Surfer’s Song. During the latter, vocalist Tim Booth makes his way down to the barrier in front of the stage; keen to make a closer connection with the audience. After singing a verse or two stood precariously on the bar, he lets go of the helping hand and drops into the arms of the crowd. It’s something he does often – usually to the horror of the venue’s security – but it rarely ends in anything worse than a few camera phones thrust in his face. He’s even forgiven the over-zealous fan in Llandudno who left him with a rather nasty scratch on his neck on the last tour; such is his desire to get in amongst the people.
The set continues with a mix of older (Ring the Bells) and newer tracks (two from the previous release, La Petite Mort). The talent of Saul Davis, violin thrust under his chin heralds Five-O from the Laid album. His stunning effort augmented by some frenzied bass work by Jim Glennie before the soaring vocals kick in.
For casual fans, James is a frustrating group to go to see. Constantly changing the setlist (no two nights are the same), sometimes leaving out the most obvious hits and often re-arranging them to sound completely different. With a still relatively new record out, you’d forgive them playing more from it, and sure enough, during the show, we get another four tracks from it, but it means that they’ll always be a certain amount of people disappointed that they didn’t play that song. Tonight will be one of those nights, but fortunately, as the band play on it actually becomes a forgotten point.
Everything slows down for the next track, a stripped-down acoustic version of hit single She’s a Star, with multi-instrumentalist Adrian Oxaal taking a seat with a cello, which gives the song a whole new feeling. Following another ‘new’ track, the beautiful Feet of Clay, we get the oldest song of the night and another one that hasn’t been played much recently, Johnny Yen. Its jam-groove style leads nicely to that familiar ‘war whoop’ of Born of Frustration, which gives Booth another excuse to get into the crowd. This time he wanders into the seats at the side of the arena, with Andy Diagram appearing playing the trumpet on the opposite side, so as not to leave them out.
The band has to start Dear John, the modern-age song to dump your lover to, without the frontman since he’s still making his way back to the stage, but he doesn’t miss a line. They follow this nicely with the song the band often call their theme tune, Getting Away with It (All Messed Up). Fortunately, tonight (so far) there have been no false starts, no bum notes and nothing to worry about. It’s soon time for the crowd to get bouncing again with the floor-filler Come Home before it’s the stunning Attention closes the main set. Augmented by a stunning light show, the track takes on a life of its own, particularly during an extended breakdown keyboard section, just one of the tracks highlighting Mark Hunter’s prowess. It’s a long song that could have easily lost the momentum of the crowd, but it doesn’t, and remarkably, the whole venue seems to be at one with the song.
Keeping the ‘encore break’ to a minimum due to the impending venue curfew, the band is soon back onstage for another acoustic song, this time Just Like Fred Astaire, with Oxaal back behind the cello. Then it comes time for the band to return the favour for their support of the evening, inviting Tim Burgess and The Charlatans guitarist Mark Collins back to run through Laid. Unfortunately, it means the dreaded cheat sheet is back out, and it almost descends into a poor karaoke rendition. Not that anyone cares, as the crowd is relishing seeing both bands clearly having fun and it’s infectious.
With time running out, we’re treated to Sometimes, complete with the whole arena singing the refrain back at the band at the end. Leaving the stage with Nothing but Love, complete with a downpour of ticker tape, it appears that everyone in the arena is smiling; such is the power of the music.
As someone who’s seen the band numerous times, it’s sometimes hard to be impartial, so the final word on the show must be down to a couple who were seeing James for the first time. Americans Dennis and Lois (the pair who had a Happy Mondays song named after them, did merchandise for the Ramones, and appear in the Elbow video for New York Morning) were at the show as guests of Tim Burgess. I asked what they thought of their first taste of live James. Only one word came: WOW.
We won’t argue with them.
The Charlatans setlist: Weirdo/North Country Boy/Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over/So Oh/Blackened Blue Eyes/Let the Good Times Be Never Ending/One to Another/The Only One I Know/Come Home Baby/Rescue/Sproston Green
James setlist: Waltzing Along/To My Surprise/Surfer’s Song/Ring The Bells/Moving On/Interrogation/Five-O/She’s A Star/Feet Of Clay/Johnny Yen/Born Of Frustration/Dear John/Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)/Come Home/Attention/Just Like Fred Astaire/Laid/Sometimes/Nothing But Love