“Come home, sit down, shut up.” This was the considered verdict of one pundit of this parish, and dare we suggest, many other fickle observers on Tim Booth’s brave baggy survivors, upon their return to planet rock after a four year absence last year. Rarely has a band been so cruelly betrayed by the ’90s. For what seemed like at least half an hour, or the length of an arts degree course at a provincial university, James seemed to have the zeitgeist firmly sewn into the lining of their T-shirts. And then, the next time we looked, there seemed to be several hundred reasons to hate the very arenas they walked on. “Those who find themselves ridiculous…” Well, you said it.
And still, seven years on from the days when they were Number Two for almost as long as Bryan Adams was Number One, they and their shockingly loyal fanbase (3,000-odd singalonging armwavers here tonight) exist in a strange netherworld in the armpit-hair of fashion. The graduates of the baggy class of ’91 and ’92 may have since got married and had children, the floppy centre partings cut down to size, the guts expanded and the cotton on their backs turned into wool, but tonight it seems they’re still as likely to get their kicks from the ‘Whiplash’ stuff as ‘How Was It For You’. Whatever gets you through the night, darlings.
How much can one hate James? Let us count the ways: The sub-Stipe psychobollocks; Tim Booth’s ‘I am dead weird, no really’ periods of drama school dancing and ropey Buddhist skinhead haircut; the whiff of ’80s middle-class liberal conscience that pervaded their every Green, vegan, celibate, anti-war sentiment; the numerous searingly naff attempts at changing their image in photo shoots to reflect ‘humour’; lyrics like “Dress me up in women’s clothes/Mess around with gender roles” – cooool! As well as the fact that their new single ‘Destiny Calling’ is a bitter attack on the superficial transience of commercial pop (this from a band who have one comeback hit and rush release their greatest hits), with such original targets as, erm, the Spice Girls. And don’t even mention S***le M**ds.
And yet, that old bulwark of anti-cynicism gets in the way again. The simple fact that when you see the whites of their hairs and the nodules on their throats, you can’t help but be swayed from the path of over-critical righteousness by undeniably good tunes, heartfelt emotion and overwhelming mob psychology. Tim Booth looks like Wayne Sleep if he had become your geography lecturer, the band as singularly uncharismatic as ever, but the atmospherics and spiritual (ouch!) resonance of these songs still fill the room. A slightly odd dance sequence to start the show worries us briefly, but then it merges into ‘Come Home’ which is so overwhelmingly received that they can’t go wrong.
That said, lesser known, more low-key efforts like ‘Out To Get You’ and ‘Top Of The World’ maintain almost the same vibe level, not to mention the sublime likes of ‘Johnny Yen’ from their ’80s wilderness years. Such is the communal bond they develop with their audience that they don’t need to go through the aloof ritual of going off and coming back on for the final encore, and ‘Sit Down’ is being sung like a hymn before they even strike a chord. “This is the happy ending at the end of a big, long book,” Tim tells us. Make of that what you will but further reading may yet be required.