The crowd is anxious. James hasn’t been through to play in Portland, Oregon in more than ten years, and the anticipation is tangible: you can feel it.
With all eyes fixed forward on the stage, a small number of fans near a set of stairs leading down off the main floor begin to cheer. The shaggy figure of trumpeter Andy Diagram appears in the balcony, heralding the show’s beginning with a few bleary tones. A spotlight on the top step reveals Tim Booth and Larry Gott in the midst of their fans, ready to perform. When they do, it’s an old favorite, “Sit Down,” with the charismatic Booth coaxing the audience on a slow walk toward the stage, where everyone turns back to find the whole band ready to play.
The show carries much of that communal energy forward. They move quickly into renditions of “Seven” and “Ring The Bells,” both older songs, still brimming with room for a fresh flourish or two. Seemingly never content, it feels like everything familiar takes on a slightly different skin than the album prepares the audience for, whether a quicker guitar riff or an artfully glossed or improvised lyric. With two albums on the new release shelf all over town, James bring out “Crazy” and “Dust Motes” (which feels like it will take up permanent residence in their set), but seemingly most effective is “Tell Her I Said So,” a bouncy, hip-twisting number off of The Morning After that feels like vintage James. Perhaps it is.
What is definitely vintage James is how well they play together. The stage is filled with hardworking wonder, from Saul Davies’s frenetic guitar and violin chops, to Larry Gott’s savvy to Diagram’s tireless fist-pumping and lunging of his trumpet toward the crowd. Discussions of a live James show must always make mention of Booth, one of the more difficult-to-ignore lead singers in modern music. If he’s not twisting and contorting his lean frame, then he’s staring out at the crowd, body still, meditative to the point of appearing almost catatonic. If the band is a patchwork of proper Manchester boys, then Booth is certainly their new age connection.
After the brief encore, the band sidesteps convention by playing “Out To Get You,” arguably the sleepiest track in their immense catalog. It’s lovely and seems altogether appropriate for the end of the show before they decide to close with a riveting “Sometimes” and a call-and-response version of “Say Something” that wants to carry on later into the night than curfew will allow.
Booth jokes that if they’re not careful, the crowd is going to believe they’re nothing but a “nostalgic pop band.” Perhaps he was joking. What gazed adoringly back the entire night, though, was a crowd perfectly willing to live briefly in the past.
Words by: Erick Mertz