Gig review: James at First Direct Arena, Leeds
Tim Booth is crowd surfing. He's being passed from hand to hand with the delicacy of a Ming vase, in accordance with his request to '˜be gentle with this old man.'
And despite the jolts and bumps, he’s singing in perfect tune to the electronic pulses of ‘To My Surprise’.
The incident, three songs into the two-hour set, encapsulates some of James’ most enduring qualities: warmth and consummate professionalism.
Currently enjoying a late career renaissance, with fourteenth album Girl At The End Of The World charting at number two, they’ve maintained an affection few of their contemporaries can boast. ‘Sit Down’, played with some inevitability as the encore, may generate the most enthusiastic response of the night but the rest of the set proves that the Manchester veterans aren’t coasting on mere nostalgia.
For while their biggest selling single celebrates a sense of community for those who ‘feel the breath of sadness’, these 22 songs create a genuinely warm atmosphere for all those present in the Arena. So much so that the ambience compensates for a lack of big stage design or flash lighting; ticker tape falling during set closer ‘Nothing But Love’ being the biggest expense.
This sense of community is an especially rare achievement given they don’t write the average stadium anthem.
It’s true that their catalogue could collapse under the weight of rousing choruses, uplifting melodies, and soaring trumpet (Andy Diagram coming into his own as he parps from the safety barrier during ‘Sound’). But look deeper and these are pop songs that deal with themes of death (‘Feet Of Clay’) and mortality (the title track of their latest album) rather than love.
This creates an inherent contradiction and tension within songs that convert the intimate into the big gesture. ‘Sometimes’, for instance, turns poetic soul searching into a spontaneous sing-a-long when the music drops out. The acoustic interlude of ‘She’s A Star’ and ‘What For’, meanwhile, works just as effectively here as if the songs had been played in a small folk club.
It’s a contradiction that crosses over the various phases of their career, from their commercial breakthrough with baggy (‘Come Home’), through to their folk-rock days (‘Say Something’), and onto their current dabbling with post-house synths (‘Curse Curse’) and sub-Krautrock bass-lines (the uncharacteristically aggressive ‘Bitch’).
Yet irrespective of these phases, the strength of the band’s core identity is such that each one is absorbed into their musical DNA rather than being allowed to dominate it. Likewise, each sound is imbued with an honesty and lack of cynicism that’s resonated with the audience for 30 years.
It’s an approach that, even this late into their career, has maintained an affection while letting them be contrary throughout. As Booth notes at one point, “we’re going to do the obvious, which is the unexpected for us…”