Live: James Achieve Jubilant Transcendence At Webster Hall
Better Than: Pretty much any other band from the '90s the general public would regard as a One-Hit Wonder.
Tim Booth began his band's Tuesday-night show at Webster Hall in the balcony, looking down beatifically at a near-capacity crowd and leaning hard into one of James' most adored songs, a high-flying anthem called "Sit Down." In the rock-show rulebook, this is a bit of counter-programming, roughly the equivalent of, say, Cheap Trick opening with "Surrender": delivering a big hit first to generate a sudden onrush of adrenaline and enthusiasm. But James were coy about it: They kept the song hushed and acoustic, and gave most of the verses to the audience, who obliged by raising their hands and singing at the top of their lungs, essentially relegating Booth to choirmaster. What could have been a bit of grandstanding instead became giddy and communal.
Which is, of course, the whole point of going to a James show in 2010 in the first place. The Manchester group may have enjoyed massive success in the U.K., but here in the States, they remain a cult act, the kind of band a small throng of people swear by and a greater number of people confuse with Blur. Their sole breach into the American pop-culture consciousness came in the form of "Laid," a randy song about doing it that proved such a great national unifier it even ended up in an American Pie film.
The thing is, that song is an outlier, a bit of black humor so far removed from the group's natural habitat it almost feels like a prank. Its infamous opening declaration, "She only cums when she's on top" (or, depending on where you listened to the radio in the '90s, "hums" or, more ridiculously, "sings") promises scandal, but the ensuing verses instead offer something more subversive: protagonists who "mess around with gender roles" and play strange (and, methinks, fictional) games with kitchen knives and skewerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrs. It's a great song, but the band is better at small, earnest, delicate, and almost ridiculously tuneful numbers that build to mighty crescendos--the same playing field occupied lately by both the National and Arcade Fire, two bands this show sporadically recalled. That James had a violin player, a trumpet player, and two (sometimes three) drummers didn't hurt.
You don't end up at a James show on a Tuesday night if you only know the hit, and Webster Hall was crammed with people well-versed in the B-sides. This was an audience that sang every word of "Getting Away With It," the lead single from a nine-year old album that wasn't even released in the United States. It was one of the evening's many peaks, as was a roaring version of "Ring the Bells." What happens, as it turns out, when you take a band used to playing arenas in the U.K. and let them play a club in New York City is that they pretty much level it. Even the small, quiet numbers from the group's small, quiet new record The Morning After gained a strange kind of force, with whispery numbers like "Tell Her I Said So" building to stormy conclusions. By the time they took a triumphant run through "Say Something," they'd hit a kind of jubilant transcendence, the crowd thoroughly overpowering Booth's bell-bright tenor.
Near the end, of course, came "Laid," for which Booth yanked a handful of extremely enthusiastic ladies from the audience to giddily flail around onstage with him. If there was even a passing pretense of "cool," it vanished completely in this moment: with broad acoustic strumming, bleary horns, a goofy chorus, and gaggle of tipsy dancing ladies. The whole thing could have been mistaken for a Mariachi Bachelorette Party if not for the floppy-haired five-year-old who somehow ended up onstage with all of them, and whose caretakers surely had an awful lot to explain later in the evening. That it was a high goes without saying--the entire room somehow magically capable of hitting that impossible falsetto--and it would have been a fantastic conclusion had they not followed it with "Sound," which ended in a wordless singalong yippe-yiy-ay, or--better--"Sometimes," which built and built until it bordered on rapture. The band stopped the song at its conclusion, but the audience kept going, repeating the chorus ("Sometimes, when I look in your eyes, I can see your soul") over and over, louder and louder, until the band had no choice but to pick up their instruments and charge back in, the roles of performer and audience thoroughly messed-around-with and--ultimately, ecstatically--reversed.
Critical Bias: Laid is one of the best records of the '90s, and has never--and will never--get its due.
Overheard: "I've never heard so many British accents in my life."
Random Notebook Dump: People Tim Booth now looks like: Skeletor the Barista, Ming the Merciless at a key party, Golem in a Beat Poetry phase, Mr. Clean dressed as Mephistapheles, Mr. Boogaloo from The Apple.