all photos by Andrew Markowitz.
As a music writer, I carry an arsenal of rubrics with me with which to measure the success or failure of a show. How did the crowd respond? How did the performance measure up against other bands in the genre? And so and so on. For the most part, the biggest gun I’ve got is my music nirvana test; close my eyes, let the club lights dance on the insides of my eyelids, and see if the music can or can’t take me to another place. These are all conscious thoughts I have at a show; when a band can get me truly experiencing their music rather than thinking about it, they are passing my ultimate test. It is rare when a band can meet and then blow past that high standard, but James at the 9:30 Club on Tuesday night did just that.
There are very few concerts that have brought tears to my eyes. When James came out for their second glorious encore to answer the emotional, joyous demands of the crowd-that-would-not-leave and launched into ‘Tomorrow’, I was shocked to discover that tears of joy and empathy were streaming down my cheeks. Great live music is as close to having religion as I get and concerts like this are what make me a believer. This concert was a transcendent good time and easily one of the very best of 2010.
Fate, poverty, and bad timing have prevented me from seeing James in concert for far too long. The first and last time I saw James before Tuesday night was at Woodstock II in 1994. Tim Booth’s neck-brace performance on day one of that amazing weekend of music was one of the most incredible things my 19-year old brain had ever seen. James’ fun, sarcastic, wonderful set of music that day has stuck with me all these years and is one of my favorite memories from that great festival.* I was instantly converted into a James fan that day and they still had their best recorded music ahead of them!
Tuesday night’s show was fairly built up in my mind. I had missed so many opportunities to see James a second time and to finally have my shot was almost overwhelming. I have heard their 2008 visit to the 9:30 Club described as one of the all time greats and I was hoping that Tuesday night’s show would be a repeat. Could that even be possible? Even with this show having its fan boy fulfillment factor, I was determined to attempt to observe this show like any other. I was quick to discover that James had other plans in store for me.
James filled the stage (7-man band) as Tim Booth explained that they were going to start the show mellow. From the first notes of their new song ‘Dust Motes’ I was hooked. In a classic “had me at hello” move, my objectivity evaporated. For the next two hours and fifteen minutes James treated the DC fans to a dream set that covered the fantastic new album, plenty of hits, and some deep back catalog for the truly obsessed. The set was an emotional pendulum as the songs swung from classic James melancholia to their sprawling, uplifting jams and back again.
Tim Booth is a force to be reckoned with on stage. The entire evening the crowd was caught between his soaring heart-tug vocals, wry stage banter, and his seizure-victim dance moves; all night long we followed him like a conductor as he informed us when it was time to hug your sweetheart with his singing, or time to party with his dance freak-outs. Early in the show Booth let a group of fans (who had attended the pre-show warm-up gig) sing along with him. During an amazing rendition of ‘Got the Shakes’ he turned the microphone on the crowd again after commanding us to hum the ending for him. At one point, Booth adopted the downstairs bar (near the merch booth) as his own personal stage. Atop the bar he sang an amazing version of ‘Say Something’. Later for the first encore Booth and guitarist Larry Gott materialized at the door next to the merch booth and did a wandering minstrel stroll through the audience as they performed the beginning of “Sit Down”. In addition to all of his stage antics and incredible singing, Booth gave many songs introductions that were at times hilarious and others seemingly deadly serious. Tim Booth is a one of a kind, true original and getting over two hours of him performing made for a very special evening.
James often jokingly refer to themselves as “The Magnificent Seven”. The nickname is appropriate because the key to their strength lies just as much in the band as it does their front man. Jim Glennie, Larry Gott, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter, David Baynton-Power, and Andy Diagram performed on multiple instruments through-out the night. It was terrific to hear James’ complex, epic tunes rendered live in concert. They are one of the most sonically varied and complex Brit-pop bands and their set list on Monday really ran their gamut of styles. The night was full of instrumental high points. At one point three drummers were going at once in a forceful fit. Andy Diagram’s trumpet was out of control on ‘Born of Frustration’. With ‘Sound’ and ‘Jam J’ the band provided perhaps the best blending of traditional and electronic instrumentation of the evening.
The audience for this show was one of the best I have ever been in. It was obvious from the respectful lack of chatter that this was a club full of lifelong James fans. Between songs people whistled and hollered in appreciation. Later they sang their hearts out during the string of killer singles James performed in the second half of the show. I have rarely seen a crowd so excited about a show. They simply would not let James leave the stage. Twice James bowed-out to close the show before appearing for a crowd-demanded second encore after the house lights and music had cued us the show was over. The crowd simply would not move; cheering like mad until James reappeared to perform an intense version of ‘Tomorrow’. Afterward, we were all going crazy for more and Booth quickly whispered a plan to his band mates and they performed a beautiful version of ‘Top of the World’ featuring Booth’s fragile narrative against Saul Davies’ violin. The song was a peaceful ending to one of the best performances of the year.
* People who slam Woodstock II must have been watching it from home. Ever person I have ever met who was actually there has completely agreed that it was one of the best weekends of music and fun ever assembled. As good as festivals have become nothing I have been to will ever match that mud-drenched music marathon.