Rockin’ and Shockin’: James in Boston
Rockin‘: Returning to the Paradise Rock Club 22 years since the last time.
Shockin‘: It seemed so much bigger when I was younger. But then, didn’t everything?
Rockin‘: Boston is, as always, full of college kids. Especially here on Commonwealth Ave, home to the vast Boston University.
Shockin‘: Last time I came to a gig here, the college kids were my age. Now they’re barely older than my older kid.
Rockin‘: The Paradise has multiple bars serving multiple micro-brews
Shockin‘: But no alcohol-free beer for those of us designated with the 200-mile drive home.
Rockin‘: When James take the stage, Tim Booth informs us they plan to start mellow and build from there. You certainly can’t get much more mellow than “Dust Motes,” from the second of this year’s new mini-albums, The Morning After. So no, it’s not exactly “rockin’,” but increasing tempo and velocity as the evening progresses is exactly how I always liked to program my DJ sets.
Shockin‘: After another new song (“Rabbitholes”), guitarist Larry Gott’s computerized guitar rig packs up. Tim’s already had to replace one ear-piece monitor. This is not exactly a smooth start.
Rockin‘: Determined to keep the show moving, even without electric guitar, Booth calls for “Lullaby” from Seven. You have to love a band that can make it up as they go along.
Shockin‘: Seconds in, guitarist/fiddler Saul Davies halts “Lullaby” due to loud feedbacking hum through the monitors that the crowd, too, can hear. Enforced change of set now becomes enforced break from set.
Rockin‘: Just as well they started slow and mellow. There’s no sense of comedown.
Shockin‘: Tim announces they’ll need to cut “Crazy” from the set. Their arrival on stage five minutes late now seems like five valuable lost minutes.
Rockin‘: Tim tells a good joke about penguins to allay what he otherwise admits to as “fear” of an audience rising up in anger.
Rockin’ AND Shockin’: Saul follows up with this classic. Husband: “Why don’t you ever tell me when you have an orgasm?” Wife: “I don’t want to disturb you at work.”
Rockin‘: Guitar rig rebooted, hum removed, group re-embark on show. “Dream Thrum” hardly ups the ante (I suspect James like playing it more than the crowd needs to hear it), but while “Tell Her I Said So” is almost as mellow, it also serves as the most beautiful song from either of the new mini-albums. Written from the presumed perspective of Tim’s 90-year old mother, in an old people’s home, angry at her children for dumping her there and wishing death to visit her and put her out of her misery, it’s easily the most beautiful and haunting song I’ve heard all year. Crowd participation in the chorus finally gets the show moving.
Shockin‘: Both that James can continue making music of this quality after almost thirty years, and that they’re not better recognized for doing so.
Rockin‘: “Come Home,” one of my most treasured of James classics, gets a rare airing. My wife comments that it sounds “so Manchester,” and with Mark Hunter’s house piano riff (happily played unaccompanied for a minute or two) and Larry’s delicious guitar riff, it absolutely harkens back to the Halcyon/Hacienda days of 1990.
Shockin‘: Tim denying in the Boston Phoenix that James ever got involved in said Madchester scene. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Tim, it gave you the commercial lift you needed at the time – and you’ve still outlasted and outlived every one of the other bands similarly associated. (With the notable exception of my good friends the Charlatans, who I recently caught in exceptionally solid form at the Bowery Ballroom on their first Stateside visit in four years. Get well soon, Jon.)
Rockin‘: Tim’s frenetic dancing at any point he decides to let loose and go for it. I think only Underworld’s Karl Hyde has better moves for a man of our age.
Shockin‘: When Tim descends into the crowd and onto the balcony while singing “Come Home” the crowd turns as one to watch, photograph and film. For me, it takes away from the six-piece band – who are left rockin’ out (or steppin’ on) onstage to the back of almost everyone’s heads.
Rockin’ AND Shockin’: The totally unexpected appearance in the set, for what Booth claims to be the first time in 15 years (more or less, then, since the year it came out), of “Jam J” from James’ commercially ill-advised if creatively satisfying experimental album Wah Wah…
Shockin’ AND Rockin’: …Immediately followed by “Honest Joe” from same album, a track I can’t even recall given that my copy of Wah Wah seems to have been permanently mislaid. Most bands that have been going this long give the audience what they figure they want: the Greatest Hits. Some give the audience what they hope they want: the New Album and a smattering of classics at top and tail. James give the audience what they really want: a largely unpredictable assortment of old hits and new gems – with the occasional complete curve ball like these two unexpected revivals from Wah Wah. Of all the acts I follow, only the Boss varies his set with equal eclecticism.
Rockin‘: An extended “Johnny Yen” from 1986 debut Stutter harkens back to a very different band: listen to drummer David Boynton-Power’s polyrhythms and see if you too don’t say “What ever DID happen to the Woodentops?” That the crowd largely sings along speaks depth to the devotion here, especially allowing that for everyone like me who saw them play back in the eighties, there is someone else here who was yet to leave elementary school.
Shockin‘: The group drops the equally historic and beloved “Hymn From A Village” because of time constraints.
Rockin‘: Saul asking for a time “extension.”
Shockin‘: They don’t get one. “Sound” is another song that bite the set-list dust.
Rockin‘: “Laid,” the big American hit, so simple, so short, so apparently effortless, suggesting that it’s so throwaway with it – and yet I never tire of it. Especially that line that sneaked through the censors: “But she only comes when she’s on top.”
Shockin‘: So why is the crowd here in Boston so static? It’s a small club, with a satisfyingly low fire limit (600?), meaning we all have some room to move around. Why do I and the drunken guy next to me, whose desire to scream “Tim I love you!” and sing along to every word would be endearing but for his inability to hold a tune in a bucket, seem to be the only people willing to dance? James is/are not a museum piece: they GROOVE! So, Boston, this is official: You may host the oldest and greatest Marathon in the World, and your enthusiasm and support for the runners was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Believe me, the Marathon I ran at the Jersey Shore was buta damp squib by comparison. But when it comes to rocking out at a James show, the crowd at Asbury Park’s Stone Pony pisses all over those of you in (the) Paradise.
Rockin‘: Staying onstage after “Laid” to go straight into “Sometimes,” determined to squeeze as much as they can into the remaining minutes.
Shockin‘: The audience singing the chorus unaccompanied at its conclusion – a James set piece these days – proves more powerful, and for whatever reason more emotional, than back at the Stone Pony. The band themselves seem overcome by it.
Rockin‘: Starting the encore with a hard-hitting “Sit Down.”
Shockin‘: Now the monitors aren’t working.
Rockin‘: Booth requests an acoustic “Sit Down” instead. Davies delivers with gently strummed chords and the audience provide vocals as monitors are fixed and the group gradually come in one by one until, finally, it is truly rockin.
Shockin‘: The crowd does not sit down during the break down. Bet you a hundred hypothetical dollars they’d have done so at the Stone Pony.
Rockin‘: A marvellous rendition of “Out To Get You” to conclude the night, Davies’ violin playing truly on fire, Jim Glennie holding the fort on bass as reliably and reassuringly as always, trumpeter/all-rounder Andy Diagram moving in closer to enyoy the intensity of it all. You could forgive an ageing rock band some cynicism at playing the small American clubs when they can still pack the British theatres. But watch James when they’re on fire – which is most of the time, technical problems notwithstanding – and it’s evident that they are all truly happy, performing, here, there, anywhere they’re in their element.
Shockin‘: If you have twelve studio albums to your name and only time for seventeen songs, you’re going to be hard pressed to satisfy everyone. There are no songs from Millionaires, retroactively my favorite James album, none from its successor Whiplash, and, surprisingly, none either (tonight at least) from ‘08’s extraordinarily satisfying “comeback” album Hey Ma.
Rockin‘: It was worth every single moment of my wife driving the 200 miles to get us here.
Shockin‘: It’s midnight, I ran 14 miles of mountains this morning, the wife is planning to sleep it out in the passenger seat, and I have 200 miles of highway driving ahead of me.
Rockin‘: As you can tell, I made it home safe and sound. Rockin’ is a state of mind. It has nothing whatsoever to do with age – as anyone watching James on stage can testify. Thanks for staying so strong, so far along. All seven of you.