Late last year, Manchester legends James thrilled fans by announcing that they’d be celebrating their 40th anniversary by releasing a double album – arranged and conducted by Joe Duddell, the album was recorded at Blueprint Studios and features a full orchestra and gospel choir. Along with the new release came the news that the band would also be embarking on a 16 date orchestral tour around the UK. We caught the spellbinding show at Blackpool’s Opera House.
As the 22 piece orchestra, choir and band began to play, frontman Tim Booth was nowhere to be seen – until he began to sing ‘Magic Bus’ whilst lit up on the balcony. Usually a jaunty number, the ‘All the Colours of You’ track was stripped back, yet still showcased the immense talent onstage as the band played the extended instrumental outro whilst Tim made his way back from the balcony. Next up were the hauntingly beautiful ‘Dream Thrum’ and the piano-led ‘Dust Motes’. Though suffering from a cold, Tim didn’t let it affect his performance and the latter possessed a rawness that added to the emotive nature of the song, before the orchestra came bursting in.
You can always count on James to put on a sublime show and this tour has seen them take things up to a level that we didn’t know existed by utilising the orchestra and choir to rework their greatest hits, fan favourites and deep cuts. ‘She’s a Star’ for example saw vocalist and guitarist Chloe Alper team up with the orchestra to take control of the chorus – delivering something completely different, whilst lessening the strain on Tim’s voice.
Celebrating their career so far, the band performed an extensive setlist and the first half consisted of 11 tracks that covered all eras of it – from ‘The Shining’, with its powerfully uplifting instrumentation and lyrics, to singles including ‘Seven’ and ‘We’re Going to Miss You’. Before the band launched into the latter, multi-instrumentalist Debbie Knox-Hewson stepped forward to share the sad passing of her father and how the show was a celebration for her and the crowd ensured that it was – filling the room with love, support and respect. Ending with Tim, the choir and those in the band with mics, singing the chorus line accapella, the track brought a true moment of beauty to a testing time.
Next up was ‘Born of Frustration’ which saw the crowd stand for the first, but certainly not last, time of the evening – and not just the band either. On crutches for a broken metatarsal, Andy Diagram was unable to pace around the stage and visit the balcony like he was doing earlier on in the tour – though he didn’t let it stop him and during ‘Born of Frustration’, he dropped his crutches in favour of playing trumpet at the front of the stage, much to the delight of those in the front few rows.
After a revitalised rendition of ‘Say Something’ that placed the spotlight on the the strings in the orchestra, the band brought the first half of the evening to an end with ‘Nothing But Love’. With the choir joining the band at the front of the stage, the anthemic track had the crowd on their feet swaying their arms in unison. Completed by the joyous sounds of Andy’s trumpet, the Girl at the End of the World track didn’t just bring the first half to the perfect end, but it left the crowd wondering how the band could possibly surpass it.
The second half began with just Tim and the orchestra. Explaining how embarrassing it is as he assumed that everybody else was behind him, the charismatic frontman joked that the orchestra were like a bus without a driver, before picking up the baton and starting to direct them. Dancing along as they played Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, he exclaimed that conducting is “fucking easy” before turning around to find that he’d been joined by none other than Joe Duddell, who swiftly took control by morphing ‘Bolero’ into ‘Sit Down’. As the stage filled up once again, Tim gave the crowd permission to have their phones out for one track – their new single, ‘Love Make a Fool’. Featuring clapping from the orchestra and choir that gave the track somewhat of a gospel feel, the track comes to life in a live setting and is proof that James are constantly moving forward.
After a rapturous rendition of ‘Medieval’ from Strip-mine, the band burst into their one true love song, ‘Just Like Fred Astaire’, before bringing the tempo down with the eerie ‘Of Monsters & Heroes & Men’. Always a track that shines live, this was intensified by the orchestra – with Saul Davies’ violin sounding phenomenal alongside the whirlwind of drums, strings and trumpet. The respectful crowd allow the band to maintain a relaxed pace as they deliver ‘Someone’s Got It in for Me’ – complete with spectacular vocals from Joshua Gordon – ‘Hello’, ‘Moving On’ and ‘The Lake’. Always a tearjerker, ‘Moving On’ is dedicated to anybody who has lost a loved one recently and as Chloe and Tim stood hand in hand, facing each other, the poignancy of the track wasn’t lost on a single soul in the crowd. Once again, Chloe and the choir teamed up to take control of the chorus and the result was astonishing.
The second set came to an end with two of the band’s biggest crowd pleasers, ‘Getting Away With it (All Messed Up)’ and ‘Sometimes’. As Tim stood at the end of the stage holding the mic out during the formers stand-out chorus, it was clear to see how much fun the band are having on tour, which was even more apparent during ‘Sometimes’. Bringing the main set to a rousing end, the blistering guitars that we’re used to on the Laid track are replaced by strings and keys from Mark Hunter.
Even with a full orchestra, James were able to adapt their setlist – not just to shake things up for fans who’d attended previous shows of the tour, but to match the crowds energy. After getting their crowd on their feet for the last couple of tracks of the second set, the band ensured that they remained there with ‘Tomorrow’, ‘All the Colours of You’ – which erupted into ‘Many Faces’ – and the delicate ‘Top of the World’. Not every band could finish a set with a downtempo track but James are never shy of a challenge and the surprise addition to the encore brought the night to an emotional end – emotions that were only heightened by the orchestra.
Never a band to go through the motions, James are constantly challenging themselves and it’s part of the reason that they’ve had such a lengthy career. The band’s 2021 arena tour was their biggest and most successful tour to date and with Summer dates and a double orchestral album on the way, it’s safe to say that James are showing no signs of slowing down.