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LIVE: James / Razorlight – Utilita Arena, Birmingham, 12/06/2024

As Razorlight close their impressive three-quarters of an hour set with ‘America’, I wonder if I have ever seen a support band perform a bona fide UK Number One single before. This train of thought continues through the gap between bands and I come up with only Ian Dury & The Blockheads performing ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ supporting Madness some three decades ago. But Razorlight have also nonchalantly thrown in a couple of other Top 3 singles into their set, to remind the big arena crowd that they were actually pretty huge back there in the noughties.

With force of nature Andy Burrows back on drums via a circuitous route from solo records to a brace of charming records with Editors’ Tom Smith and even a co-write of the music for The Snowman and the Snowdog, the band are certainly firing on all cylinders. Of course, frontman Johnny Borrell is still centre of attention and looks and sounds pretty identical to when the band emerged over 20 years ago. It’s not every support band that has the confidence to stop a song to let the audience sing the chorus unaccompanied as he does on ‘Golden Touch’, but it pays off as a chorus of thousands reward his faith. It still sounds like a close cousin of The Cure’s ‘10:15 Saturday Night’ , but that’s obviously no bad thing. Lesser-heard singles ‘Vice’ and even more so ‘I Can’t Stop This Feeling I’ve Got’ have aged well and it starts to feel like a headline set, with ‘Somewhere Else’ raising the roof. If there’s one niggle, it’s the extended wig-out of ‘In The City’ which, in my humble opinion, should have been swapped out for the sadly absent ‘Rip It Up’ and there would have still been time to throw in their most recent hit, 2009’s ‘Wire To Wire’ too. Churlish to complain though after such a good set.

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I first saw James aged fourteen, (me not them), in 1985. They were an utterly charming, angular, odd four piece folk group with some killer tunes that would often go off in unexpected directions. I saw them many times in the mid to late ‘80s, always a brilliant live band with a way more fervent, numerous audience than their modest record sales perhaps would have indicated (despite being signed to Sire, the same label as Madonna, in 1986, their records were for some reason very difficult to track down, which stalled their progress no end).

They played legendary gigs at Birmingham venues such as Burberries, The Irish Centre, The Hummingbird and The Powerhouse. But that I would have the privilege of seeing them four decades later in an actual arena in front of probably 10,000 people would have seemed unthinkable. Yet as frontman Tim Booth strolls onto the stage in seriously baggy trousers and a faux fur coat (complete with hood), he is in his element in this kind of setting and it seems completely like his natural habitat.

James’ set lists have always been unpredictable, and as the audience perhaps anticipated an opener from recent Number 1 album Yummy, (amazingly, their first chart topping studio album), they are instead treated to two hits from 1997’s Whiplash, in the shape of ‘She’s A Star’ and a triumphant ‘Waltzing Along’, which already has Booth balancing on the edge of the crowd having come down from the stage. By this time there are fully thirteen band members on stage, with trusty bassist Jim Glennie the only other remaining member from those early days. Glennie is pretty much the polar opposite of Booth as far as grabbing the crowd’s attention goes, seemingly happy to stand at the stage’s edge providing what has always been an integral part of the band’s sound. But when he looks around him, instead of seeing a guitarist and a drummer, he sees two drummers, two guitarists, a quartet of backing singers…the list goes on! It’s a kind of happy, organised chaos on stage, band members swapping guitars for violins and cellos, a trumpet player appearing in the crowd – none of it seems forced or choreographed and you imagine it will be different tomorrow.

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There are old songs, (but not any of the very old songs, the first three albums aren’t represented at all), and plenty of new songs. This has always been the way with James, they will never become a ‘legacy’ band as they tend to be quite forward thinking. They play eight songs from Yummy, and they are very well-received, with the anthemic ‘Life’s A Fucking Miracle’ and a beautiful ‘Butterfly’ the highlights. There’s a staggeringly good ‘Five-O’ , the melancholic masterpiece from 1993’s Laid, and hits like ‘Born Of Frustration’ and ‘Say Something’, not to mention their most well-known song, ‘Sit Down’, which predictably turns into a huge celebratory singalong. ‘Tomorrow’ also deserves a mention, it’s probably James’ number one anthem these days and gets a mighty run-through tonight.

When Booth goes walkabout around the arena during ‘Just Like Fred Astaire’, the camera following him shows a variety of interesting reactions from audience members on the big screen, the abject horror in the face of one woman for being unwittingly thrust into the limelight and the ‘John Redwood singing the Welsh National Anthem’ (look it up if you aren’t sure!) vocal display of a man is outweighed by beaming, high-fiving fans as the singer somehow manages a compete circuit of the whole arena, which also takes in the next song, the playful ‘Curse Curse’.

It’s hard to imagine a more ‘feel good’ set closer than ‘Sometimes’, the backing vocals on the original added to (and then some) by the huge cast of James (2024 version). Everyone on stage looks like they are loving it; it’s a wonderful rendition, and it’s a shame it has to end. The band return for a three-song encore, Yummy’s ‘Way Over Your Head’, another relatively recent single ‘Beautiful Beaches’ and a stomping ‘Laid’ to finish off.

Unusually for a band who play arena tours, James have a tendency to mix things up with their set lists to keep things fresh, and they aren’t even afraid of stopping a song if there’s a mistake – this all makes for a unique experience for each audience and presumably keeps things interesting for the band, so it’s a great approach that’s still working for them after all this time. There’s no-one quite like them and they show no signs of slowing down.

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Photos: Andy Page

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.