The last time I saw James play live, at Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall, they hadn't even released an album. They'd probably, as folklore goes, sold more T-Shirts than records and if asked would probably not have expected to still be playing together some 34 years later. Way back in 1985, James were a relatively new band riding the indie wave that was being driven to a large extent by the band who they were supporting on tour that year, fellow Mancunians The Smiths. Whilst The Smiths broke up (with little chance of ever reforming) a couple of years later, James continued on and, despite a five year hiatus at the start of the millennium, have continued to play live and make new music.
Last year saw the release of James' fifteenth album 'Living In Extraordinary Times', and it is the tour of the same name that brought them from Manchester to Margate to play at The Winter Gardens. In the century old venue in front of two thousand fans, James put on quite a show; well, two shows actually.
Ahead of the main performance, the support slot for the night was given to: James! The full band came out on stage to rapturous applause and announced that they would be performing an acoustic set; that they would "keep your attention and steal your voices for the evening" as well as jokingly wondering what the hell they had done. It started aptly enough with 'Hello', was given something fresh with "a track that didn't make the album" in 'Broken By The Hurt', and built beautifully through a brilliant piano solo on 'Quicken The Dead' from the band's 2014 album 'Le Petite Mort'. As it was an acoustic set, there was less band noise filling the venue than may have been anticipated, so the rather noisy people at bar got an earful at one point. "We're going down about as well as a bad support band", said lead singer Tim Booth. A lively rendition of 'Maria', a song they "hadn't played for about twenty years", saw Booth take his first tentative stride out onto the extended stage 'catwalk' before the more emotionally charged 'All I'm Saying'. A stirring 'I Wanna Go Home' rounded off the first half hour with a rousing send off. "Thank you to James for giving us this opportunity, we've been Patrick, see you in half an hour", Booth and Andy Diagram quipped as James left the stage for the first time in the evening.
When James returned to the Winter Gardens stage, there was no reserve or restraint, apart from the possible toning down of Booth's dancing, due to him recovering from a back injury. That aside, as it in no way detracted from the evening, James showed just why they have long since been regarded as one of the finest live bands you can see. The chemistry and interplay between the band was just great and the musicianship was quite astounding at times.
The first track saw James take the crowd all the way back to the first album with the infectious beat of 'Johnny Yen' before they brought it bang up to date with the angry and reflective 'What's It All About' from their most recent release. Booth, dressed in white shirt, fur coat and magnificent Oxford Bags, captivated the crowd as he strode about the stage. As frontmen go, he may be somewhat more unassuming and less intense but he is no less captivating and certainly makes more of a genuine connection with his audience.
The band's newest album was a point of focus throughout the night. There was an upbeat but tenderly delivered 'Leviathan', an impassioned 'Many Faces', a very poignant and pumped up 'Extraordinary Times', and a more subdued 'How Hard The Day' ahead of which Booth told the crowd, "This is only the third time in 35 years that I've taken drugs before a gig." After the cheers subsided he informed the excitable crowd that it was only paracetamol to ease his back pain!
Where the evening hit its real high points though were, as you may expect, during the band's huge numbers. From 1994's 'Wah Wah' album, the brief but stunning 'Tomorrow' rung out and filled the Winter Gardens with an energy and a spirit that lifted the crowd ever further. The more stripped back arrangement of sing-a-long staple 'Sit Down' saw the audience in fine voice and the lady at the front of the crowd who chose the penultimate track as Booth handed down the mic made an inspired decision to go with 'Come Home'. The anthemic masterpiece was an awesome choice to build the crowd into a frenzy before James closed out their main set with another massive track 'Born Of Frustration'.
The band came back out on to the stage to the joy of the appreciative crowd for a three-track encore that included an epic nine minutes of 'Sound' that was capped by a foray into the crowd for trumpet player extraordinaire Andy Diagram, and, finally, from 'Pleased To Meet You', the stirring and sensational 'Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)'.
The Winter Gardens in Margate were very lucky to host James this evening as they head out onto the road once again. In a rather glorious coincidence, they'll also be back at Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall (34 years to the day!) this time as deserved headliners! The band were nothing short of spectacular, Booth's voice has lost none of its passion or emotion and the songs, new and old, sounded brilliant throughout a very special night by the seaside. Catch them if you can - it'll be a gig to remember wherever you are.
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