YouTube is a wonderful and dangerous space.
Hours and hours of learning available to everyone with an internet connection.
A tool as revolutionary as the Gutenberg press.
Instant access to lectures, presentations, debates and discussions, news and information from around the world and from across the decades.
Mainly I use it for watching footage of my favourite bands.
Swings and roundabouts.
Horses for courses.
Which brings us to James live at T in the Park in 2014.
James, you may already know, take a very different approach to playing festivals than most bands of a similar standing…no easy, lazy, greatest hits setlist from them. Instead they see these settings as an opportunity to connect with an audience who may not know them, may only know of them or who may know only…that song. They don’t want to use this opportunity to shift a few copies of their “Greatest Hits” album on Monday morning. They want to show people, prove to people, that they are a working band, a band making new music, a band with things to say and a way of saying them that makes them as relevant, more relevant, today than when they first appeared nearly thirty years ago.
The band appear not in front of the daisy logo but before the calavera that adorned the cover of their then most recent album “La Petite Mort”. It’s a statement of intent…we are here and it is now.
Then they play “Come Home”…a song from 1989.
This was the first song I ever heard by James, sat in the bedroom of Dave Evans…a boy with a floppy fringe but a solid knowledge of the indie music scene of the day. Dave was the gateway into a world beyond Erasure and Rick Astley and into the darker, more rewarding, world of The Smiths, Joy Division and James.
It’s James I’m most grateful to him for.
Within seconds of the song beginning Tim Booth has left the stage and is perched, precariously, on the crash barrier. Holding hands with audience members, relying on the kindness of strangers to stop him falling. Then he does fall…willingly…into the outstretched arms of the crowd, trusting again that they will be gentle with him.
I once saw a bouncer at a Morrissey show punch someone in the throat as they attempted to clamber on stage and embrace him…it was an act so violent, so forceful and so unnecessary that it made me flinch. What made it more shocking was that I had been in attendance at a show on the Kill Uncle tour in 1991 when Morrissey had left the stage because of the aggression of the security and had only returned when his own road crew had replaced them.
James…always changing and yet never different.
What this little flash of audience interaction reveals is the thing that sets James apart from every other band of their size you could name. Despite the fame, despite the platinum records, despite the fawning of the press, despite the adoration, despite the sell out crowds, despite their position as an influence on so many other artists…they have remained humble, remained connected to their audience, remained true to the things that actually matter to them; kindness, love, generosity of time, space and spirit.
As “Curse Curse” starts a look comes across Tim’s face…he’s smiling, joyful, in the moment.
In “Danny Champion of the World” little Danny reveals that he knows when his dad is really happy because he isn’t smiling with his mouth but with his eyes. That’s what I see in this moment…a real smile, a smile from somewhere pure, a smile that is genuine.
The song is a soaring anthem…full of naughty imagery and clever word play and backed by a tune that would send the punters in the clubs of Ibiza in a frenzy. It’s a banger mate. A stone cold banger.
Then the camera pans to some of the very important people gathered to watch from the wings and…
Your eyes do not deceive you.
It really is Susan Boyle.
Grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
Can we all just agree that Susan Boyle is ace?
I spent several of my early years living in West Lothian, Whitburn, and it is a mean, hard and ugly place. It isn’t a place for people to dream a dream, not really. It is a place where culture means a trip to Ibrox (and it is always Ibrox) and where ambition is measured out in pints.
That Susan Boyle, with her fragility, could have dared to step out onto a stage and do what she did is, frankly, the closest thing to a miracle you are likely to witness. It took guts, strength, courage, fearlessness and will.
That she then survived the descent into the madness of the music industry is an even greater miracle than the one that put her there.
Now she is back in West Lothian being tormented by ugly boys from ugly homes with ugly little dreams.
There is hope and hopelessness in her tale.
I love her.
She is the perfect person to be smiling through a performance from James.
For James reach out to the lonely, the lonesome, the alone, the broken, the pale, the tired, the lovesick and the heartsick and lift them from the grime and the grim of the ordinary and place them as close to Heaven as the likes of me are ever going to get.
“Ring the Bells” (from the greatest album of all time) sees Tim duet with Andy Diagram. Two men and a trumpet singing songs of praise together. It’s genuinely thrilling and all the while the rest of the boys in the band hammer, pound, beat and caress their instruments in such a way as to create a sound that reaches cacophony. A hymn to the village gathered to watch them.
When I first heard “Moving On” it was when I watched the video.
Few things have ever had such an impact on me.
Possibly nothing from a stranger, from strangers, has ever had such an impact.
Remembering all the people I had loved who I couldn’t tell now because they had moved on.
Jessie and John and Katy and Davy and Uncle Bobby and the others.
Then I remembered the people who were still here.
I could still tell them.
As soon as the song finished.
Now there are new people to tell.
I love you.
It’s in Tim’s eyes again as you watch.
He’s sad but he’s not sad.
He is using this song, this moment, to connect to something within and without and create a healing.
A double bill of “Frozen Britain” and “Jam J” is the sort of wilfully perverse, obtuse even, thing that bands just are not meant to do at a festival. These are not songs for a festival crowd. These are songs for the devoted. But in the hands of James they become songs that resonate and touch even the casual listener. It helps that Tim is a totemic figure…all eyes fixed on him as he shakes, shimmies, slinks and slides across the stage. It’s mesmerising.
“Getting Away With it All Messed Up” sees Tim back in the crowd. Holding hands. Looking into people’s eyes. Singing to you. Singing to you. Singing to you. Singing to you. Singing to us. Singing to himself? When he sings “Dance like John Travolta…now” I laugh. Out loud. Every time.
“We’ve become a fucking cabaret band…” can only be the introduction to “Sit Down”. It must be strange to have written a song that means so much to so many people. That means so many different things to so many people. For some it’s the indie disco song where people, literally, sit down. For others it’s just “that song” by “that band”.
For me it is a conversation with the best friend I never had.
I’ve felt the breath of sadness.
More times than I’ve wanted to.
Sometimes it is hard to carry on.
I am ridiculous.
Maybe I’ve been touched by madness.
That can all be disturbing, upsetting, unsettling, challenging…but then I listen to this song by this band and it all feels better.
They give us one more new song with “Walk Like You” which is, in my ill informed and less than humble opinion, a corker. That’s right. A corker. So there.
The set closes with “Laid” and “Sometimes”.
Just think about that for a second.
Imagine being in a band that wrote one song as good as either of those.
Then consider being in a band that wrote both of those songs.
Bodies flail and fling around the field.
Voices reach, unsuccessfully, for the high notes in “Laid”.
People grin at their partners when Tim sings about her only…you know…when she’s on top.
The rain is falling now.
Maybe there is a God.
If there is He would like James.
At least if He was the loving, love, peace and harmony God of the New Testament he would. All beatitudes and forgiveness. All hope and promise.
It’s a monsoon.
The rain isn’t lifting the lids off of gutters but it isn’t dampening anyone’s enjoyment of what is happening…if anything it’s acting like baptismal water, cleansing everyone’s souls and leaving them in a state of grace and bliss.