It's after 5 p.m. on the final night of a U.S. tour for James, the British group still best known in the U.S. for the '90s hit “Laid,” and a mid-size group of fans with special V.I.P. badges are watching the soundcheck.
Things appear to be running smoothly for the band, who recently put forth The Night Before and The Morning After, two releases that fall somewhere between EPs and full-lengths. The musicians banter with fans as they run through a small handful of songs, some new, some old, and the crowd members attempt to capture this with tiny digital cameras and cell phones.
James has a surprise for the fans.
Later on that night, they will be playing “Gold Mother,” from the album of the same name, which predates “Laid” by about three years. It's a fan favorite, a long, stomping and chanting piece depicting the birth of a child. They hadn't rehearsed it before on this tour, singer Tim Booth announces.
The fans, myself included, are ecstatic. The band plays pretty tightly and, despite mentioning earlier that he was trying to conserve his voice, Booth gives a heartfelt performance. This isn't your ordinary soundcheck.
James has been doing this throughout the tour, offering fans who pay for V.I.P. entrance a small glimpse behind the scenes. It was a decision made simply to help make ends meet, but soon turned into something more.
“We tried it with trepidation,” said Booth of the meet-and-greet experiment when we spoke backstage. “We felt this was the most artistically valid, because we get to play music for people and our soundchecks are quite interesting because we never do the same thing twice.”
He continued, “It actually takes the edge off our nerves for the concert, because you do a mini concert to faces that you are going to see later.”
“Having the people be there, you have to perform,” added bassist Jim Glennie. “We've all been really surprised.”
Formed in the midst of Manchester's storied early-1980s indie scene, James have had a long and unusual career.
“We had seven years in James where we made no money,” Booth recalled. “They wouldn't play us on radio, we couldn't get on TV… We were selling out two 10,000 [capacity] nights in Manchester before we got our first TV slot. “
The band hit it big in the U.K. with “Sit Down,” an anthemic song that they used as the opening number for Wednesday night's show. Booth emerged from the floor-level crowd inside The Music Box surrounded by fans who clearly knew every word. It was spectacular.
James is a band that is keenly tuned into their audience, nation by nation. During our interview, Booth and Glennie rattled off a list of countries and what the big hit is there. “Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)” was a smash in Greece. “Sometimes” was big in Portugal.
James had a few respectable alternative radio hits in the U.S., like “Born of Frustration” (which, sadly for some, wasn't part of Wednesday's show), but didn't break in the States until the wildly popular 1993 album Laid.
“In England we're playing to the audiences who have been with us from 'Sit Down' and that's how they came. They want explosions,” said Booth. “In America, they came in on Laid so they've got that little pop song but the record was really mellow. So, in America, we're given permission to be more musical.”
If the L.A. show is a any example, then James has nailed the artful balancing act of playing to the crowd and playing because they simply love it. The set list (included at the bottom of this post) carefully pieced together both songs that pre-dated their initial 2001 break-up and work resulting from their 2007 reunion. They included tracks that were, at least at one point, difficult to find in the U.S., like “Stutter” and “Just Like Fred Astaire,” with new tunes and the big hits. The audience may have freaked out when they heard “Laid,” but reacted just as strongly to songs like “Gold Mother,” featuring backing vocals from the Silver Lake Chorus, and many others.
At the same time, though, the band isn't simply performing songs for a crowd, they are living them. Improvisations and solos are okay. Nothing ever sounds quite as it does on an album and that seems to be completely intentional.
“We have to keep this fresh and exciting for us,” said Glennie. “We like that kind of weird, it-will-be-alright-on-the-night kind of attitude. It's all a little bit under-rehearsed, all a little bit sketchy, because there's a sense of achievement to it.”
“Most bands have a set set list. They become theater actors,” Booth added. “They're going through the motions… How is that a living piece of communication with the audience that is standing in front of you in that room, pissed off on a Monday night or happy on a Friday night?”
“It has to be scary. If you rehearse the life out of it, you lose that fear,” said Glennie. “I think a lot of people want that security, but you just kill it.”
Even that staple of concerts, the typed set lists that are taped down at every performance station on stage, isn't the final blueprint of what will happen at a James show. Wednesday night's finale, “Gold Mother” (which came complete with fans dancing alongside the band on stage), wasn't actually the finale. Seemingly out of the blue, Booth announced that they would do a “two minute” version of “Come Home,” the great Madchester-era jam, which they played with high-speed energy. It was a wild, spontaneous end to a show that was already far from predictable.
“She's a Star”
“Ring the Bells”
“Tell Her I Said So”
“Getting Away with It (All Messed Up)”
“Just Like Fred Astaire”
“Out to Get You”
“Sometimes (Lester Piggott)”