James Live at the El Rey
This was almost a missed opportunity of the most spiritual kind.
Sitting under the hot lights, getting my cheek stitched up and in a rare type of novacained/wooden faced pain, I remember thinking, “Why did James have to have their concert this week, man?” After the doctors told me the mole was nothing to worry about, not to take a shower for two days, not to drink any beer for two days (!), and not to do any strenuous activity (sigh) for at least two weeks, I couldn’t even fathom heading to the El Rey two nights later to see the fabulous Manchester band on their reunion tour, and first tour of the U.S. since 1995.
But I went, per the urgings of my much better half, and would have kicked myself in the spiritual pants for eternity if I’d missed it. You should too if you missed it. This was the best show I’ve seen this year. The El Rey was packed.
Opener Unkle Bob, from Glasgow, harkened back to the 80s sound of the Railway Children, if you remember them, but the sound was poorly mixed and their melodies fell a bit flat, although they were extremely likable. But the audience wanted James; we wanted James, and we got them, in all their glory.
This is a band that must be seen live. Tim Booth is absolutely one of the best and most underrated front men in rock. He is present; when he’s looking out at the audience, he’s looking at YOU. He dances and flaps around in this amazingly beautiful, spastic sort-of dance, with this Buddha-like grin on his face that says he knows God and wants to share It with everyone. The band around him (including founding member Larry Gott, who left after Laid but is now back) were amazing: 7 guys all packed on the El Rey’s tiny stage but making it theirs, with keys, violins, shakers and tambourines. These guys are tight as drums and having a blast.
They dabbled a bit throughout their entire career, from first hit “Sit Down” up through selections from their amazing new album Hey Ma, which, thankfully, just received a U.S. release on Decca, their first U.S. release since Whiplash back in 1996. The new songs fit in seamlessly with their older tunes and were well received by the crowd, which was comprised of old fans and newer ones as well.
A mid-section breakdown that prefaced the end of the main set peaked (at least for this reporter) with Tim Booth heading into the crowd for “Say Something,” as everyone shouted along with him while he pranced around to mingle with different corners of the audience. This led into the lead song from Laid, “Out To Get You.” Its hushed tones silenced the crowd; a pin could be heard dropping. A glance around the audience saw many people wiping away tears, until the song reached its rousing conclusion that again had the audience singing along.
There were of course shouts from the crowd of “PLAY ‘LAID’!” but these were seldom. And play “Laid,” their biggest (only?) U.S. hit, from the 1993 album of the same name, they did, wrapping up the show with a rousing version of the song that had everyone screaming and singing along like the helpless fools we were. Finally, at the very end, the band invited as much of the audience as they could fit onto the stage for what can only be described as a tent revival. “Thanks for not being too cool,” Tim said, as they left the stage, “thanks for being spontaneous.” James had us in their hands, and they knew it.