Live at First Direct Arena on Saturday, 14th May 2016
It may not have been a homecoming for Manchester band James, now in their 33rd year, but for Yorkshireman Tim Booth this gig is just as big.
Booth comes from Leeds and is a United supporter but he is understandably wary as he faces an expectant and giddy audience. "Saturday night in Leeds is a dangerous place to be, especially for a singer who likes to come into the audience."
Still as lithe, energetic and mad-cap a dancer at a sprightly 56 as he was in his twenties in the 1980s, Booth has reason to be circumspect after what he described in a James blog as an "attack by five or six overexcited people" at a gig in Llandudno two days earlier. The streaky scratch marks are still apparent on his neck as revealed by the two monitors flanking the stage. Booth had threatened not to crowd surf at weekends but after imploring us in a light-hearted way "to be gentle with this old man", and not thrust cameras in his face or grab his balls, he urges us to have "a fucking great night. This is my home town."
And we certainly did! James delivered a fantastic two-hour set dominated by their 14th and latest album 'Girl at the end of the World', but with enough nods to the past to keep everyone happy. James are a far cry from the band billed as the nearly men of the Manchester scene dominated initially by The Smiths and New Order in the eighties and later by Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets. Now, whole families arrive at arenas sporting James T-shirts; mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.
But first we had half an hour or so of dreamy Anglo-Italian singer-songwriter Jack Savoretti, whose earnestness started to wear thin approximately two minutes into his opening song.
Midway through his set Savoretti thanked James for allowing his band to experience the "crazy" nature of such a big arena. "Fuck off", came a loud cry from the first couple of rows of the dress circle. He wasn't bad, he wasn't good, but we've all heard this sort of thing before from George Ezra and Paolo Nutini. Catapult, ironically a song title on James' new album, is not a bad track but is a straight lift from Lana del Rey.
The penultimate song, Home, contained a couple of cliches in the first couple of verses ("out of sight, out of mind", "patience is a virtue"), strange for a guy who professed to spend so much time writing poetry in his early years. But lyrics have never been as important as the music itself and he concludes his set with his best song of the night, a funky number which is greeted with warm applause as Savoretti thanks us for the third time for having him. Thank James, Jack, we had nothing to do with it! In fact, we were rather hoping to have seen the more adventurous Slow Readers Club, who have provided additional support for most of the tour.
Fortunately, we didn't have to wait too long for James, who kicked off the night slowly with the atmospheric Top of the World, which was followed by a fantastic version of Move Down South, one of the best songs from the new album. The acoustics are perfect and Booth's voice remains as strong and engaging as it did all those years ago. 'To my Surprise' is very much like their material from the late nineties and sees Andy Diagram join in with his trademark trumpet. That signals the first of Booth's crowd-surfing trips as he is carried awkwardly at times towards the middle of the arena and back again. We hold our breath. "Everything seems to be working. I trust you. Thank you!" Booth announces to everyone's relief.
Keyboardist Mark Hunter takes centre stage with the clubby Curse, Curse, from 2014's La Petite Mort, which goes down a storm, but the place goes mental as James launch into one of their nineties anthems, 'Come Home', with its distinctive Madchester intro. The crowd love every second and if that tune was still in our heads it soon disappears as the familiar refrain of 'Sometimes' bursts into life.
Some people behind me look like they're having a religious experience as Booth sings the line "sometimes when I look deep in your eyes I swear I can see your soul". Adrian Oxaal, still standing in for the absent Larry Gott, delivers a nice solo as the song comes to a climax, but the crowd decide they haven't heard enough and continue to sing the chorus for a minute or so. It seems like we're heading into a new track as Booth bounces up and down in time to David Baynton-Power's powerful drums which build up to a crescendo, but we get another 30 seconds or so of 'Sometimes'. It's one of several stirring moments on a really special night. "Fucking hell, we haven't done a sing-a-long for a while, you forced that," says Booth.
Stars and planets provide the backdrop for the track 'The Girl at the end of the World', before which Booth informs us he was involved in a car crash three weeks ago. He really has been in the wars. It's a decent song, but not as good as 'Catapult' which starts with a pounding bass line from the ever youthful Jim Glennie and ends with another trip round the arena for Booth, who is mercifully returned safely on his back.
The highlight for me, though, was an overwhelming version of 'We're going to miss you' from 1999's Millionaires which sounded so good I actually had tears in my eyes. Sometimes, you've just got to go with the flow! Oxaal nips on to the cello as Glennie, Saul Davies and Booth deliver acoustic versions of 'She's a Star' and 'What For, which didn't quite match the joyful optimism of the 1988 version of Strip Mine, one of my favourite James albums.
'Dear John' and 'Honest Joe' were low points of the night but the place was buzzing again as the boys, playing as an eight piece tonight, build up the tension, trumpet trills and all from Diagram, for 'Sound' which comes alive through Glennie's bass and the Orbital-like sound of Hunter's keys as blue lights and foggy spots bring atmosphere to the stage - as if it were needed! Diagram goes walkabout across the front gangway and points his glowing trumpet to the heavens for a trippy climax.
James return for an encore after the so-so 'Attention' and the crowd get their second big helping of anthems with 'Sit Down', which has the opposite effect of bringing everyone upstairs to their feet. "You earned that one," Booth says. 'Moving on' goes down a treat and the night concludes with 'Nothing but Love', "a song about the volcanic nature of love", Booth reveals. Hundreds of red petals cascade from above like confetti as the mandolin rings out. We're expecting just a little more, possibly Laid, but the lights go up to the sound of David Bowie's majestic Heroes, co-written by Brian Eno, who has been such a major influence on James since 1993's Laid.
Manchester is undoubtedly Britain's greatest musical city. Oasis, Stone Roses, New Order - as far as I'm concerned, you can keep them all. Only The Smiths can hold a candle to James because theirs is a light that will never go out.