James: Live Can Change Anything
James: Live at the Stone Pony, Asbury Park, New Jersey, Sep 20 2008
The Magnificent Seven Ride Again: James (and Squeeze) at Radio City Sep 19 2008
OMG, They’ve Renovated Asbury Park )
The Stone Pony in Asbury Park is every live music fan’s ideal venue. Forget its association with the Boss, or that it’s only a block from the beach. It’s small, it’s cozy (indeed, if not for the outdoor deck being open on this beautiful late summer’s Saturday night, it would have been cramped to the point of suffocation), and above all, it’s friendly. A ticket I’d brought for a friend running late was easily left in his name at will call, and as for the one extra ticket, the door staff made a point of hooking me up with somebody outside looking to buy one. (Naturally, I did so for cost.) Compare this to Radio City the previous night, where scalpers mingled freely on the sidewalk out front, while a woman who carried a sign advertising a face-value ticket that she did NOT want brokered by scalpers was told to move off the premises, immediately, and you’ll understand why it was hard not to enter the place with a smile on my face. Posie and I quickly walked round the back of the crowd to the far side of the stage, politely elbowed our way into a vacant four square feet of space near the front of the stage, and determined to stay there, toilet or bar breaks be damned.
Though I’ve never been to the Stone Pony before (shame!), this is home turf. I’ve been to Asbury Park for other gigs. I met my wife on a New Jersey dance floor no bigger than this. We’re both big James fans. So were most of the people at the club where we met. Some of them are here tonight. All around me are people who have already been to see James either in Philly, DC or New York City; a more devoted, involved, knowledgeable audience would be hard to imagine. “Five-O” is from the album Laid. It’s one of James’ archetypal brooding ballads, and it asks, among other questions, the following: “Will we grow together? Will it be a lie? Will we last forever? Hope I’m the first do die/Will you marry me? Can we meet the cost? Is the power of love worth the pain of loss?” Laid was released in 1993. I got married in 1993. My wife’s also a James fan. This is our first road trip gig together in a long long time. It’s been a strange week. A very strange week. I can not explain why I’ve never really taken the words of “Five-O” to heart before. But maybe that’s why we need to grow old with our favorite bands together.
OH MY HEART
The sound is not a patch on Radio City. The group appear to be having a fair amount of problems hearing each other. But I’ll sacrifice aural perfection any time to be among just a couple of hundred people, only a few feet in front of a seven-piece group that plays arenas in most other countries. I have a feeling “Oh My Heart” is being prepped for the new single from Hey Ma. I hope not. It’s as close to formulaic as the new album gets.
The title track from 1992’s album of the same name, “Seven” just happens to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. That’s not an instant reaction; it’s one reached over many years. (As is true of all the truly great songs.) “Understand the world we’re living in/love can mean anything.” That line tears me up every time. Maybe it’s the optimistic manner in which Andy Diagram’s trumpet line ascends in-between the two lines. Maybe it’s the equally encouraging Tim Booth sings it. Maybe it’s the song’s last line, and the slight but crucial shift in verb: “Understand the world we’re living in/love can change anything.” And maybe, on this occasion, it’s also the energy (not volume, please note, but energy) being transmitted by the seven musicians, who are tucked inside the song as if it’s making love to them. Or vice versa. I draw back a little, aware that the night is young and, like any good lover, I need to pace myself.
The American single from the new album Hey Ma, only issued by American label Mercury the week of this tour, several months after the rest of the world. Operating with the stupidity for which the music business is going bust, Mercury put an embargo on imports of Hey Ma for those several months, from iTunes to Amazon. Judging by the number of people who know every single word of this song, then most of them, like myself, got around the import embargo anyway. This is the digital age, fuck it. Don’t tell us when we can and can’t buy new music, because if it’s in the marketplace, we’ll get it regardless. “Waterfall” is, certainly, a stand-out song. I too love being underneath cold, clear water; having a creek run through your property will do that to you. Lyrics aside, it’s just another damn fine piece of music. Andy Diagram’s trumpet line and Mark Hunter’s piano form a wonderful duet. Saul Davies doubling up on drums with David renders it that much more powerful.
The British single from Hey Ma. Graced here by an intro cut and pasted from the middle eight refrain, “And I’m all mashed up mum’s droning on and on.” Perhaps the American company thought the words were too Anglocentric? Saturn cars appear to be less concerned; they’re using it in a commercial. When I first heard this song, in the spring, I was really quite staggered that the group would come back firing quite so brazenly on their seven-strong cylinders, for James are not – never have been – a particularly loud and aggressive band. “Whiteboy”’s a welcome exception.
RING THE BELLS
If I’m not mistaken, the first familiar single in the set. But see anyone here complaining about album tracks? No. I see people holding up requests for even more obscure songs, from the albums Whiplash and Millionaires. I hear someone calling for “Johnny Yen.” “Ring The Bells” rocks almost hard as “Whiteboy.” I’m thoroughly enjoying watching Jim Glennie pace back and forth in front of me all night. Never mistake simplicity for stupidity. Plus, I doubt if his mirror is telling him he’s getting old.
Via iTunes, I have been walking around listening to the set list from this Stone Pony show on my iPod. It’s subsequently struck me how comfortably the material from Hey Ma – “Bubbles” is its opener – nestles alongside that of the albums Laid and Seven from the early 90s. Some might consider this proof of a group’s lack of progress, but I suspect that a few songs from Wah Wah or Millionaires or Pleased To Meet You would put that charge to rest. Is it too much to suggest instead that it indicates a return to classic form?
DON’T WAIT THAT LONG
Another song from Seven, the album that divided James fans back in 1992, especially upsetting those who believed the group were abandoning their Mancunian roots for something more universally stadium-friendly. I never bought that argument, even though “Don’t Wait That Long” came as close to U2 as James could have managed without bringing in Brian Eno as producer. (Brian Eno certainly heard something he liked: he approached the band and produced their next three albums.) This is another song in which Tim Booth appears to question his fidelity. “Operator, the lines are down, down, and I’m a traitor to a beautiful cause,” followed by the truly majestic, “God made me to her own designs, bad planning, too many flaws.” The nice thing about the Stone Pony’s outdoor deck is that it appear to be keeping the room relatively cool. We don’t have breathing space but we appear to all be breathing comfortably. “Don’t Wait That Long” is one of James’ longest, holding steady at a salient pace, allowing its groove to expand and contract accordingly.
I WANT TO GO HOME
A slow song about a life winding down in a darkened bar, “I Want To Go Home,” the finale to Hey Ma, follows on perfectly from its predecessor, James at their most internally, intensely focused. Packed with fine couplets, especially the lines “I prefer you naked, this too shall pass,” and “Sex is over-rated, I need to dance.” More so than I recall at Radio City, the song builds and builds, as James are so adept at doing. Saul Davies’ violin playing pushes the group into territory once fondly marked out by the Waterboys. It’s the kind of steadily rousing crescendo that leaves the listener thoroughly exhausted. Spent. But still alive.
OUT TO GET YOU
Three of these beautifully haunting ballads in a row. Is Tim trying to say something? “So alone tonight, miss you more than I will let you know.” Another intense build-up. Have we complimented Larry Gott’s guitar playing yet? Apparently he didn’t sleep last night. (Too much partying in New York City?) I made the comment in the Radio City review about James sometimes being perceived as “U2 Lite.” That could be perceived as a compliment. James always shared with U2 that similar ability to get inside a song, and then to stretch the groove out over a considerable length of time – as they prove on these three ballads. But James never did/do so in a bombastic manner; in their case it’s a far more subtle process. You could liken this to fine wine: though Californian alcoholic blockbusters have their merits, and certainly their following, there’s really no substitute for the mellow subtleties of a great Bordeaux. I trust you get my drift.
A song about working away from home, lyrics ringing alternately true for the touring musician (“My work’s about words”) and for the migrant worker (“When work is scarce, father must feed, must provide). It’s not about phone sex. Talking with Saul after the show, I compliment him on the new album. He agrees that it means business. “But we can make a better one,” he says. That’s what I like to hear.
As Tim writes in the sleevenotes to the album of the same name, “Could have been a great pop song if it weren’t for the lyric.” But from my own notes, it would appear that people are treating it as one anyway. “An odd song for people to sing along to,” I’ve scribbled, legibly for once. Prior to his solo album Bone, Tim rarely (if ever) wrote directly about world events, and yet he seems to be getting good at in middle age. Hey Ma is hardly as subtle as R.E.M.’s “Houston” but nor is it as blunt as their “Ignoreland.” Tim feels the need to explain it again. The band seems perfectly content just to play it hard as nails.
Fuck me, but is this an unexpected highlight. Never my favorite James song, though I admire that James selected it as a single. (And in writing up this review, I note that it is only the second familiar single of the entire set.) Tonight, the seven dig in deep, find their core musical spirit, pick up the song, and take it way out of this famous Jersey club and off into the stratosphere. The several-minute dub section tagged on to the end of the song is stupendous. James write most of their songs in jam sessions. It’s a methodology they learned in large part from Eno. Truly, and in case you think this review is a love letter to Mr Booth, I could hear the six playing members jam like this all year long. Judging by the smile on the singer’s face as he watches them, so could Tim.
It’s ending all too soon, and I’m trying not to harbor disappointment at a set list that appears to be sticking resolutely to the same three albums as the previous night. Tim asks, a propos to the lyrics, whether anyone in the audience has ever been hit by lightning and someone speaks up about the R.E.M. show at Jones Beach this summer, when lightning hit the stage. Quite a few people boo at mention of R.E.M. as if it’s a popularity contest. A strange reaction given evident similarities between the acts. To Tim’s question, my mind turns to running right inside a thunderstorm during this summer’s Escarpment Trail Run; we were so incredibly lucky nobody received a directly lightning hit. Tim and Saul debate whether you’re automatically killed if you’re hit by lightning. I don’t believe you are. At the song’s conclusion, as I’d been tipped off to, the group allow/encourage the audience to sing the chorus on their own. I’m not normally one for these kind of football chants at concerts but, and maybe I’m biased, it doesn’t feel like that. Perhaps because the lyric is not self-aggrandizing. “Sometimes when I look in your eyes I can see your soul.” This was one truly good-natured, civil and happy crowd. Check my camera footage for confirmation.
A swift segue to the group’s biggest American hit, the singalong song. It may be atypical of their wider catalogue, but so was Blur’s “Song 2.” And that’s what pop singles should be – atypical but universally popular moments of sheer pop brilliance that call out for airplay. “My therapist said not to see you no more, she said you’re like a disease without a cure.” The uplift from the Sometimes singalong carries through Laid; the room has reached one of those moments of collective higher consciousness. You get it every now and then at a gig of this emotional magnitude, especially in a room as small as the Stone Pony. It’s the reason we pack our kids and our suitcases into a car, book a hotel room, and go see our favorite bands 150 miles from home.
Encore time provides opportunity, I hope for the group to finally – come on now lads! – dig deep and pull out a couple of surprises or obscurities, or even crowd-pleasers, from the back catalogue. Playing another single from Laid – the sixth song so far from that album – does not qualify. Tim, having studied the room’s layout, moves off to our left, to the far recesses of this long, narrow club, where people have assembled away from the gently heaving masses and settled for what must have been very poor sightlines. It’s a nice gesture for a nice song.
BORN OF FRUSTRATION
Guess we could not have expected any less. If James are going to mine Seven and Laid to their fullest, Born of Frustration is a certainty. It’s an anthem, certainly, and it has couplets to match the best of them: the “Who put brown owl eyes on a butterfly’s wings?” is as apt an affirmation of a higher power as any. But talking of frustration, a set closing in on two hours has still drawn from only three albums of a ten album career. I try not to let my disappointment upset what has otherwise been the best gig of the year.
I have subsequently thought of a few explanations for this narrow setlist focus. To be fair to the seven members, Seven (1992), Laid (1993) and Hey Ma (2008) are the albums on which most of them played most often. But to be fair to the audience, I believe five of the seven people on stage played on Whiplash (1997) and Millionaires (1999), and I am surrounded by fans calling out and holding up signs for songs from these albums. Talking with Saul afterwards – the dressing room was essentially just a hut in the outdoor bar area, and all but Tim were contentedly socializing with gracious and friendly friends and fans – he seemed to acknowledge, with some prodding, that the American James audience is fully acquainted with both Millionaires and the “final” album of the old James, Pleased To Meet You (2001), even though neither were released in America. Surely, when playing to just 300 of your most hardcore fans, then drawing from albums that were freely available on import is not a risk?
But in conclusion, maybe I was just unlucky. A friend who went to Boston earlier in the week heard “Come Home” from 1990/91’s James/Gold Mother, and both “She’s a Star” and “Tomorrow” from Whiplash. Elsewhere on this tour, the group have dug into “Top of The World” from Gold Mother, and eventually, perhaps recognizing the point I made above, “Getting Away With It” from Pleased To Meet You. That leaves Millionaires as the only post-Sire period album to be ignored. The fact that it’s perhaps the finest of all James albums makes this a little harder to swallow.
In conclusion – and we’re left in no doubt that this will be the set’s conclusion – Tim offers the audience choice of a slow one or an uptempo one. The crowd, near enough unanimously, opts for the latter, and the group finally dig back further than Seven for the hit that took them out of 1980s indie obscurity and into 1990s baggydom. The performance is perfect. And it seems equally apt to end the night with a song “about the ability of music to reach out to people in dark states.” Those words are from a piece Tim Booth wrote for Britain’s Independent newspaper last week, after Sit Down was used as a warm-up for Gordon Brown’s speech at the Labour Party conference. It seems, indeed, an odd choice of song. Still, it provided Tim the chance to explain it for himself; it also encouraged author John Harris to offer his own eloquent and clearly informed take on the song’s meaning and history in the Guardian. One way or another, James are back on the newspapers’ Arts Pages where they belong.
It is, truly, the best club show I’ve attended in years. Forget the whole reunion business, because this is about a band very much back in business. At the start of the night Tim made a bad joke about “From Radio City to the Stone Pony, James’ dive in a nutshell.” A couple of days later, I’m hearing about band members wishing to move to Asbury Park! We’ll end then, with words from Booth himself, posted on the group’s blog a few days after the Stone Pony show, referring specifically to the American tour.
The love and appreciation we have been showered with on a nightly basis has been overwhelming. So many personal stories from people who have been waiting 15 years to see us. The concerts have been mutual love-ins. I am almost embarrassed to be standing there with a half moon grin on my face. It’s decidedly uncool, un-NME, un-English. But it’s real, so fuck self-conscious judgements. Great nights standing on stage listening to this astonishing orchestral cacophony, as I stand in the centre of the hurricane. I have never felt such prolonged ecstasy in James, and I have hardly seen it in other bands. It takes hours to come down afterwards.
Indeed, it does.