James/Amy MacDonald; September 25, 2008; The Vic Theater, Chicago
The hardest phone call I ever had to make was one informing my youngest sister that James had cancelled the second half of their first US tour due to lead singer Tim Booth aggravating an old dancing injury. This was 1997 and James was touring behind Whiplash, her favorite James record so far. They did return as part of one of the last touring Lollapalooza festivals which limped into Alpine Valley that summer, but James played so early in the day that their fans were essentially the only people in the vast amphitheater, spread so far apart that their enthusiastic applause couldn’t have amounted to much. The classic example of a British band that couldn’t repeat their success here, James never made it in the States, the hit “Laid” the only blip on most Americans’ radar. They went on to record two more original records and then quietly broke up.
When the reunited James announced they would be doing a mini-tour of the States following the US release of Hey Ma, I couldn’t wait to call my sister. Too bad she was in the middle of a three week vacation in Europe. I went ahead and bought her tickets anyway.
Stop number nine on the tour was Chicago’s Vic Theater, a medium sized venue with good sightlines which has become much more pleasant since they relaxed their camera policy and the Illinois smoking ban went into effect. I was a little surprised to see SOLD OUT on the marquee as we approached, but hey, good for them. The crowd that packed the floor and first couple levels were older than I had expected, closer to my age than Gina’s, but I guess that makes sense when you consider that they were at their most popular 15 years ago. Older doesn’t mean they were necessarily any better behaved. While they didn’t have the (surprising) enthusiasm and energy that Milwaukee’s crowd did the next night, they still had enough to yell things like “Go Cubs!” during what was supposed to be a quiet moment. Sigh.
Watching the band on stage, I could understand how Booth had suffered multiple dancing injuries. He flailed about like someone else was pulling his strings, reminding more than one person of the scene in “Can’t Buy Me Love” where Patrick Dempsey learns to dance by watching an African tribe on TV. The song selection was what you would expect, cuts from the new record (of which the gorgeous “Upside” was the highlight both nights) mixed with their “greatest hits.” The latter all came from Laid, Seven or their self-titled record, which had produced their best sellers in the UK. Still, I would have loved to have heard something from the perennially underrated Millionaires, the gorgeously tranquil “Fred Astaire” for example.
The crowd went predictably nuts over “Laid,” but managed to carry over some of that enthusiasm to the next song, “Sit Down,” a positive message of acceptance with religious undertones, a common theme in James’ songs. “Those who find themselves ridiculous sit down next to me,” Booth implores while also opining, “I hope that God exists, I hope, I pray.” The faster numbers were certainly fan favorites, but it was the slower numbers that proved to be the most powerful, “Sometimes” was positively shiver-inducing and “Out to Get You” hummed with paranoid energy. Though played in a different order, the set lists in Chicago and Milwaukee were nearly identical save for the extremely unexpected “Honest Joe” in Milwaukee which took the place of “Five-O.” My sister called it the happiest five minutes of her entire life, and I am sure she was one of only a handful of people who recognized the track from Wah Wah, a rather unlistenable and mostly unheard collection of late night, lights off wanking from the Laid sessions.
The biggest difference between the nights proved to be the opener. The drum kit in Chicago read Unkle Bob, but it was the beautiful and charming Scot Amy MacDonald who actually played. Her slow, inspired cover of “Dancing in the Dark” cast a darker shadow on the light-hearted song. In Milwaukee, the generically boring Unkle Bob reclaimed their instruments for a pedantic set of rock.
Though both nights were ridiculously entertaining, Booth seemed closer to the Chicago crowd, literally. He spent one song perched precariously on the barricade in front of the stage supported by a fan, while the encore found him serenading us from the balcony. I’m not sure what the bottom line was on this tour, but based on fan response alone, the band had to call it a success. Hopefully we won't have to wait eleven years to see them again.