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James: Caught live at Brixton Academy

Tim Booth, lead singer of James

Review by Jack Foley

I REMEMBER standing in The Brighton Centre in December 2001, when James had finished the final song on their farewell tour, lamenting the passing of one of Britain’s greatest bands.

The band had split to pursue solo projects and had just delivered another virtuoso live set packed with signature hits such as Laid, Born of Frustration, Come Home, She’s A Star, Johnny Yen and, of course, Sit Down. It was a thrilling end to a thrilling career that almost always demanded a bigger following than it ultimately generated.

Imagine my surprise (and happiness) when Booth and co announced they would be reforming at the beginning of the year with the prospect of recording new material. The only question was whether they could pick up the quality of old with something that might appeal to contemporary listeners.

They answered part of that question at Brixton Academy on Friday night (April 27, 2007) with a performance that rolled back the years. Kicking off with the distinct electronic sound of Come Home, James clearly enjoyed their own coming home of sorts.

For sure they had some new material to test – but the emphasis was firmly on the past hits and it was clear from their reaction (as well as the fans) that it had been too long apart. What’s more, very few of the songs sound dated, given the new spin put on certain tracks and the general quality of the writing that has long been a part of Booth’s skill.

For almost two hours, Brixton’s Academy took on a party vibe, pausing only to hear the odd new track or for the quieter moment afforded by slow builders such as Out To Get You.

Booth, for his part, continues to cut an imposing stage presence. Visually, he looks remarkably distinct courtesy of his bald head and trim beard, but the way he gyrates his body in tandem with the band’s music is truly unique. It’s as though he plugs himself into the band’s rhythm and just lets the music take over from within. At one point, several female revellers were invited to join him on the stage (and one man) but as good as they were at cavorting along with him, none could match Booth’s distinct style.

Of the new material, two tracks stood out. Lead single Who Are You? offered an enticing mix of the old and the new. The guitar sound was definitely harder, even grittier, but the chorus was pure Sound era Booth, complete with raised falsetto delivery. It deserves to be a major comeback smash.

And Chameleon, which also appears on the forthcoming greatest hits compilation, was confidently delivered and tuneful enough to appeal from the very first listen.

But it was the classics fans came to hear and which they duly delivered with gusto. Highlights – of which there were many – included rousing versions of Laid – which sent two of my companions into the depths of the mosh-pit to be part of the frenzy that accompanied it – and Ring The Bells.

The obligatory Sit Down included a nice piano intro that set things up perfectly for the distinct guitar riff to set things in motion (fans singing along over the chorus as per usual), while Destiny Calling and She’s A Star were also memorable deliveries – the latter, especially, coming in the form of an alternative version that made it sound fresh and exciting.

The band’s use of lighting and imagery continued to be as thoughtful and effective as days gone by – one track, in particular, coming with images on the back-screen of various sea creatures (killer whales, jellyfish and stingrays) drifting towards the crowd as effortlessly and smoothly as the music that accompanied them.

And the varied use of instruments – whether it be via the constant guitar changes, or use of electric violin – confirmed the talent and versatility that is rife throughout every band member.

The only disappointment? The lack of signature tracks Sound and Born of Frustration from a set that was reportedly different from the night before’s (also at Brixton).

In all other respects, however, James’s Brixton return was a glorious throwback to some very happy musical memories that also put forward the tantalising prospect of more to follow.

“We never thought it would happen but we’re glad it did,” said Booth before departing the stage for the two encores – a sentiment echoed by everyone at the Academy.