Quick Concert Review: James (A.K.A. Drinking Like Richard Burton, Dancing Like John Travolta)

Share this post

There are a number of externalities that influence one’s perception of a rock show.  The crowd.  The sound.  The consumption, or lack thereof.  The immediate environment (that guy smells…that guy won’t stop taking video with his phone…oh, that girl is cute!).  And then there is “what you bring with you” to the show.  Are you tired? Stressed? And so on, and so on.

The last time I saw James, I ended up back stage for an hour and a half with the band, which was a pretty amazing experience given their place in the pantheon of my formative years. Certainly, this would not measure up to that experience. I mean, this was a band largely known for one single in the 1990s. And I was battle-worn, coming straight off of a ten-day Oktoberfest bender and pretty much straight from the airport to the show. Maybe I should just go home and rest, right?  Nope…damn those torpedoes and sleep when your dead…I soldiered on through and witnessed James’ tremendous performance this past Monday night at Washington DC’s 9:30 Club that left this weary traveler feeling like I’d imbibed a concoction of peyote and Red Bull at the Playboy Mansion.  And yes, I mean that in a good way.

I’ve long been of the opinion that Tim Booth and company formed one of the most under-appreciated acts of the 1990s, (and do not take that distinction as disparagement of their sporadic output this past decade, either).  James is one of those bands whose set-volume recordings do not offer a fair understanding of their atmospheric crescendos and layered brilliance.  While their fantastic song “Laid” became popular amongst those of both genders tickled by its semi-lurid theme and poppy rhythms, this band is FAR from a one-hit wonder.  With early work that evoked (and was praised by) Morrissey, these Manchester lads put together some of the finest pop songs never to grace the airwaves. Booth’s introspective and poetic lyrics are often offset against atmospheric crescendos and emotive soundscapes. In fact, it is Truth that “If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor” wins my personal prize for lyrical genius. Succinct, memorable, and above all…true.

This was a Monday night. This was a crowd of Washingtonians – not usually the liveliest of audiences – in their late 20s to early 40s.  This was a band who had recently re-formed and returned to recording. One which had spent little time Stateside over the past decade.  This was not overly promising on its face, and in fact, I almost bailed given the baggage I knew I was carrying into this event. But above all, this evening was a truly special one, as I’m sure anyone in attendance would attest.

When you see James, it’s not just Tim Booth and his alternately stoic and manic stage persona.  It’s seven guys playing instruments that include a violin, French horn, guitars, drums, and keyboards, plus some sort of keyboard flute and other assorted instrumentation. And, the seven gents on stage put together a s20+song set list that delved deep into my favorite James’ album…Seven. This is a band that has perfected its craft over the years…they’re no enthusiastic but awkward teenage lover, They understand what they need to do and what their audience / partner needs. They’re paying attention.

Sometimes you want…no, need the comfort of the past…the recapturing of youth. The ability to let it all out and forget about the responsibilities that have accrued over time…A clear head, a body and mind filled with pure unadulterated joy.  James understood that their audience required a little stroking from the get go, and warmed it up with a couple of catchy new tunes before ripping into “Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)” and other deep tracks that this audience had been waiting a long, long time to hear performed live. They alternated expertly between tight up-tempo rockers and somber ballads with the accumulated wisdom that understands that a back tickle is best followed by a scratch.

As good as that felt, Mr. Booth knew enough to up the ante.   A little over ten songs into the set, Booth took into the crowd for the second time, this time ending up perched atop the bar on the right side of the venue singing the anthemic “Say Something”. The crowd sang in unison and roared its approval, and, ladies and gentlemen, we thus experienced climax number one of the evening.  To thunderous applause and whoops of approval, Booth made his way back to the stage and the band lit into that certain single on the top of most everyone’s I-hope-they-play-this-tonight list.  And here, James deployed the rolling thunder approach to climax.

It’s nice when a band pleases its audience and plays what they want to hear, but even better when that is not the show’s ultimate moment, by far. To end the set, James again went back 18+ years to “Seven” and launched into a tremendously atmospheric version of “Sound” that turned into an audience clapper, complete with the audience echoing Booth’s pitch perfect yodeling. Frenzy.  Hysteria.  Insanity.  Bliss. The band was clearly shocked at the breadth and depth of audience appreciation, and as they took their bows the smiles on their faces lit up the room.  They were feeling it.

And luckily, they weren’t done feeling it.  They deep-tracked it again for a supercharged encore, pulling out the previously referenced “Sit Down”, “Born of Frustration”, and the always anthemic “Sometimes.” The ecstasy continued as the band said their goodbyes, but the sold-out crowd made no moves towards the exit.  But alas, the fun was over, as the house lights came on and the PA began to play (some vastly inferior) music.  But…then something rather unprecedented occurred…The crowd refused to leave…They refused to stop yelling and screaming and clapping for more…They were not going to take “Goodnight” for an answer. And, ultimately, the boys from Manchester came back for another go at it, beaming from ear-to-ear and remarking about how blown away they were by all the love in the air.

And so commenced the third go-round, starting with the night’s first track from their tremendous album Whiplash. Capitalizing upon the energy in the room, they blew threw a tight version of “Tomorrow” that upped the seemingly peaked level of insanity in the room. They were “over-time” as they put it, but knew that leaving on that frenzied note was likely to result in a Lord of the Rings-style riot. So, they did their part to calm the savage beast their music has awakened inside this aging, but not aged, crowd of partisans.  With continued joy on their sleevs, they brought down the house and the show one last time, finishing with “Top of the World”, a stellar ballad that itself would be old-enough to drink in America. This was the tuck-in after the love affair, and given the pleasure-filled faces surrounding the band, they left knowing that they had both satisfied their partner and still left them wanting more, more, more…leaving everyone with a smile even if they couldn’t stay the night.

Leave a comment!



Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.