VARIETY might be the spice of life, according to the old adage, but it’s not a quality held in high regard by many concert-goers.
They want all the old hits and they want them now, preferably in much the same order as last time so they know when to get their phones ready to take a video.
They’ll accept a bit of new stuff in the middle so long as the greatest hits make an appearance by the end of the encores, but that’s as far as their sense of adventure will go.
That’s an expectation James have made a bit of a point of defying over the years, often snubbing Sit Down - their biggest hit, courtesy of its chart positions of No 2, No 7 and, erm, No 77 – over the years.
However, they’ve still, for all the protestations to the contrary, ended up satisfying it, but with the addition of a couple of long-forgotten B-sides or a new album almost in its entirety as a show of defiance.
Not this time round, though. This tour was always destined to be different because of the presence of the 22-piece Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Joe Duddell, and the 16-strong Manchester Consort Choir, and the band, already verging on the mob-handed themselves, with seven members - seized that chance to air some more obscure material.
James have been going, on and off, since 1982, giving them a vast back catalogue full of neglected nooks and crannies to explore, and that was an opportunity they exploited almost to the full.
That said, the Manchester band have had so many hits during their 24 or so years together that they’re difficult to avoid altogether, hence the presence of no fewer than six Top 40 singles in their 23-song set and a couple of other close-run things.
Requests from the audience for Laid, Johnny Yen and Sit Down were rebuffed, but with the likes of Tomorrow, Sometimes, Say Something, Just Like Fred Astaire and She’s a Star present and correct, even those members of the audience only in possession of one of the band’s two best-of albums won’t have gone away feeling short-changed.
Ironically enough, this would have been the first time a James audience could have sat down to Sit Down without going to any effort as they haven’t played an all-seated venue in this neck of the woods before, although most of those present got to their feet for the last handful of songs, so perhaps not.
Bands tend to respond to the presence of an orchestra in one of two ways. They either just carry on doing what they usually do, largely oblivious to the presence of lots of people with violins, harps and other unfamiliar instruments, an approach favoured by many acts featured on the BBC’s old Electric Proms concerts, or they go back to the drawing board and rearrange and reinvent to accommodate the different sounds at their disposal, as Peter Gabriel has been doing in recent years.
James, as you’d expect, opted for the latter approach and it paid off, often spectacularly. Now and again, David Baynton-Power’s drums, despite being enclosed in what appeared to be a Perspex cage, rendered the orchestra and choir all but inaudible, but for the most part, helped by the excellent acoustics of the Sage’s Hall One, the band and their new travelling companions gelled together well.
Among the highlights of the two-hour-plus show were set opener Dust Motes, from their last release, 2010’s The Morning After, and a stripped-down version of the 1997 single She’s a Star, performed just by singer Tim Booth, wearing the baggiest trousers ever seen except on clowns or members of Madness tribute acts, and the orchestra and without its signature guitar line.
Other highlights included The Lake, a 1998 B-side, and the first of three encores, Top of the World, from 1990’s Gold Mother, during both of which you could have heard the proverbial pin fall to the floor.