Thirty years is a long time in music. There’s not many that make it that far, and of those that do, it’s even less likely they’ll still have the ability to keep things fresh. This is actually year thirty two now for Manchester outfit James, and from a quick glance at the bill for the evenings entertainment on Tuesday, you could have been forgiven for thinking this might just be a nostalgic 90s singalong, a chance for all the old numbers to come out for an airing and everyone to sob into their tepid, overpriced pints and reminisce about the days when Tim Booth had some hair. But a tired, predictable reprieve this was not. Yes, the queue that snaked around into Corn Exchange Street in the mid-November drizzle was a distinctly middle aged one and yes, there were inevitably occasions in the evening when those well know songs of yesteryear were sung in unison. But if there’s one thing that James are not, it’s predictable.
This was the Le Petite Mort tour; a nationwide promotion of their first album in four years, and a reminder that as a band, James are still as invigorated as ever. After fellow northerners Starsailor had nicely warmed up the sell-out Cambridge crowd, the evening’s headliners strolled onto the stage looking confidently relaxed. Front man Tim Booth came last, clad in red checked suit and wooly hat, and leaned into his microphone – “Let’s have some fun”. Oddly enough, things didn’t kick off as immediately as I’d expected. Whether it was due to a fairly quick failure of the mic or possibly as a result of the opening song choice, ‘Oh My Heart’ off their Hey Ma album, but it just felt a little flat as a set opener. Indeed, it wasn’t until the atmospheric strains of ‘Walk Like You’ and then the familiar wailing guitars of ‘She’s A Star’ that things really got going.
From then on, the band effortlessly switched between new and old numbers, with the former being just as well received. Fluttering keyboards in ‘Quicken the Dead’ and the pounding Europop style anthem ‘Curse Curse’ sandwiched the ever delightful life affirming sounds of ‘Seven’, and this theme continued as the night went on. For every singalong there was something new or something different, and there was a sense that they make a conscious effort to keep things interesting, for all involved. Booth himself was captivating. As enigmatic as ever, his distinctive movement on stage is entertainment enough – from the eyes closed, head rolling trance like state to his wild, carefree, limbs flailing to the music – he has an affable demeanour about him that is truly his own. Often, he’d let the crowd sing for him while he gazed out from stage or stood up on the front fence, an adoring smile on his face as he scanned the crowd. At one point he wandered right out into the audience, lost among them except for the beam of the searching stage lights and the odd glimpse of his gleaming dome. As front men go, there’s few that rival him.
The remainder of the band were as tight as ever, switching between guitar, violin and trumpet solos with ease, harmonising vocals and easily showcasing the variety of styles they seem to master so well. The set list covered the last three decades entirely. Older, slower numbers such as ‘P.S’ came and went alongside the touching ‘All I’m Saying’ from Le Petite Mort, before ‘Say Something’ and rarities such as ‘All Good Boys’ came from their extensive back catalogue. Mixing it up to this extent does have it’s disadvantages – ‘Greenpeace’ and ‘Stutter’ were met by mostly muted silence, an opportunity for a beer break for plenty, before ‘Just Like Fred Astaire’ predictably brought them all streaming back inside. Another one from the new record, ‘Gone baby Gone’, as energetic as it is repetitive, went down well, before the opening chords of ‘Come Home’ took the entire room back in time to early 90s Manchester in an instant.
In a show to promote the new album there were (as expected) plenty of the more recent numbers, and I have no doubt that the band are delighted with the reception of it. But as is always the case for any group with this much longevity, it’ll be the old ones that bring down the house. And so they did. With an encore of ‘Interrogation’, ‘Getting Away With It’ and a full voiced singalong of ‘Sometimes’, led by a grinning Tim Booth being passed over the audience’s heads, it made you realise that in actual fact, 30 years is no time at all.