Friday, 9 December 2016

James - Indie-Pop Rockers Cap Off a Fine Renaissance - O2 Academy Sheffield, Sheffield, 09.12.16

Only three numbers have passed at the O2 Academy in Sheffield before Tim Booth has fallen into the arms of the waiting crowd during a boisterous Surfer’s Song. The Yorkshireman – whose shining pate, trimmed goatee and erratic dancing gives the impression of a seventies adult actor transported to the twenty-first century – returns to the safety of the stage with a small grin. “There’s a big sign somewhere here saying that crowdsurfers will be ejected,” he quips, before he holds out his hands in mock-surrender to security policing the barrier, as if waiting to be handcuffed.
Tim Booth of James performing live in Leeds in 2016.
(Credit to Danny Payne Photography.)
He has reason to be cheeful. 2016 may go down in notoriety, but for James, the seminal Madchester-era band, it has been their most successful year since their reunion almost a decade ago. With a hit album in Girl At the End of the World and an acclaimed slot at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, they have made a triumphant, well-deserved return to the top flight of British music. Their appearance in Sheffield is their penultimate date of the year, amongst a handful of thank-you shows, a victory lap in all but name.

Expectation would be to trot out the hits, one after the other here. Instead, James subvert this notion with a setlist spanning over thirty years, heavy on deep cuts and fan favourites. Under dark blue lighting, they open with 2014’s Walk Like You, before an energetic dash through Ring The Bells. They dust off Hymn from a Village for the first time this year, and throw in fan favourite Five-O for good measure. It is a near-career-retrospective, a whistle-stop tour of lesser-renown moments that showcases the group’s versatility.

It’s hard to fathom how good Booth sounds at fifty-six too. On the synth-drenched To My Surprise, he flows silkily between exclamation and exhumation with smooth ease. For 10 Below, played live for only the second known time, he creates dissonant noise through a megaphone, whipping up frenzied soundscapes. The rest are no slouches either; bassist Jim Glennie, drummer David Baynton-Power, guitarist Saul Davies, keyboard player Mark Hunter and Andy Diagram on trumpet, plus touring member Adrian Oxaal. Together, they deliver some thrilling renditions of classic songs; Waltzing Along is an unruly bass-heavy blast whilst the ethereal Vervaceous is heady and intoxicating in equal measure.
Tim Booth of James performing live in Manchester in 2016.
(Credit to Sean Hansford.)
At times, the sound mix fluctuates badly, drowning out Diagram often, and the setlist often feels a step too far for casual fans, oddly paced at points. But when the hits eventually come, they do so thick and fast. A driving Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) and the baggy Come Home are dispatched with a gleeful abandon, triggering mass outbreaks of beery singalongs and dad dancing. A superb Sometimes build on the party atmosphere, and when they close with the strident Nothing But Love, it threatens to make Sheffield burst with unbridled joy. Renaissances don’t often come around in pop music – but James are the special kind of band who are more than deserving of a second wind.

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