James/Ed Harcourt; October 1, 2010; Royal Oak Music Hall, Royal Oak Michigan
When I saw James at Lollapalooza during the last gasps of the touring festival (1996 I think) we were twenty rows deep in a huge outdoor amphitheater and it seemed like we were a million miles away and that would be as close as I would ever be to them. When they broke up a few years later I was sure of it. Now it’s more than a decade later and they have just released their second record since reforming and I’m just feet from the stage at the Royal Oak Theater in a Detroit suburb. Yes, they were playing Chicago, but on the same night as the eels show in Milwaukee and I already had a ticket for that. And as strange as it may seem, it has been longer since the eels toured than James. So was it worth it to spend all day on a bus and a night in a hotel just for one show? Absolutely.
James was fantastic the last time I saw them, but there were songs missing from the set list that I really wanted to hear. First on that list was “Fred Astaire” from Millionaires. There were rumors in Milwaukee that they were going to play it during a wedding proposal, but that didn’t happen (though the long-winded proposal did). Tonight however… “This is an unabashed love song,” lead singer Tim Booth smiled before the swirling chords swelled from the band. From nowhere a woman appeared on stage, dressed similar to Booth in loose fitting pants and shirt, her head was also bald. Seeing her, he smiled but made no move to have her removed, and she swayed and spun through the song, a beatific smile on her face the whole time. “We encourage that sort of behavior,” Booth grinned after she left the stage. And it worked with this audience, who were enthusiastic without being aggressive. After having just dealt with a Drive By Truckers crowd a few days earlier, this group was a relief. No one pushed or shoved, and even though I was alone I was able to return to my same spot after a trip to the restroom.
Rather than save the hits for the encore, James elected to get them out of the way early. As the lights dimmed, chords could be heard from the back of the theater. A spotlight picked out two figures moving toward the stage, the first was guitarist Larry Gott who strummed the melody to “Sit Down,” followed by Booth who crooned the affirmative you’ve-got-a-friend lyrics, “Those who feel the breath of sadness, sit down next to me. Those who find they’re touched by madness, sit down next to me. Those who find themselves ridiculous, sit down next to me.” The pair eventually made it to the stage, passing within arm’s length of where I was standing, where the rest of the band joined them. While “Sit Down” is their most popular UK song, “Laid” is the one that got the most play in the States. Even so, they didn’t save it for the encore. The high powered, ridiculously catchy, pseudo-stalker anthem must be the best two minutes of every show for their drummer, and the crowd went crazy as Booth did his trademark shaking a rag doll dance. I’d listened to new release The Morning after the Night Before, a pair of EPs packaged together in the States sold separate in the UK, but I didn’t feel like I knew the songs until I heard them live, where they were instantly familiar.
Of course we knew they were coming back, the only question was what they would play. The answer was “Jam J” from Wah Wah (“You didn’t expect that did you?” Booth asked), “Tomorrow” and “Sometimes,” another of the tracks from Laid and one of my favorite songs. You can feel the storm brewing in the song through the intensity of the music. Booth left the stage and headed into the crowd with his wireless microphone, standing on tables and ledges, held up by the crowd, as he led everyone in the chorus, “Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul.” Eventually he returned to the stage and fans flooded up to join him, with his encouragement, until security cut them off worried for the safety of the band. As the last of the singing faded out, Booth looked satisfied, “We can’t top that,” and the band left the stage after a group bow.
Surprisingly, they did come back. Rather than try to outdo what had just happened, they opted for the quietly gorgeous “Top of the World.” And for this song he finally broke out the old time microphone which had been perched at the edge of the stage all night. This was no ordinary microphone though, a blue light emanated from within it, and Booth’s shiny dome glowed in its light. It was a haunting and appropriate ending to a show that been even better than expectations. I know that by the fact that I am still smiling even as I write this.