Known Johnson

October 7, 2008

James at the El Rey Theater, Oct. 2, 2008

Filed under: Music — Tom @ 8:50 pm

I don’t get to see concerts like I used to. Back in college, it seemed like I saw something every couple of weeks. I saw a lot of crap, and I don’t mean crap as in “stuff” – I mean, I saw a lot of crap. One band I missed, however is still one of my favorites of all time – James, and it was one of those “missed ’em by that much” things. You see, right about the time the band was due to start touring our area in 1997, James’ lead singer, Tim Booth, injured his neck so bad that they had to cancel a bunch of tourdates. They did tour with that roving crew of crap that Lollapalooza became in the late 90s, but I’d already sworn off of festival shows by that time – few in attendance are there to see who you want to see, making for a hostile environment for good shows. Besides, James would return to the states for their next album, right? As luck turned out that was the last time they came to the US. And to add insult to that injury, they broke up in 2001.

It took a while, but all was not lost, as the band reformed last year with their most notable lineup from the 90s with guitarist Larry Gott and trumpeter Andy Diagram among the ranks, to record one of 2008’s best albums, then proceeded to hop across the Atlantic to visit the US for the first time in over a decade. It’s a gesture not being dismissed by fans – shows are selling out everywhere. When I got a call from a friend of mine asking if I wanted to go, it was impossible to say no. And go we did, taking a couple days off work to furiously drive 400 miles across the desert for a night with the band in Los Angeles at the beautiful El Rey theater. And it was incredible – one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I don’t say that lightly, either. It’s not because it’s been a show 11 years in the making for me, or because it’s so rare that I see a show now. It was simply a beautiful, amazing concert experience, the kind of thing every concert should be but so rarely is. It was perfect.

The El Rey is awesome

The El Rey is a surprise – curtains and fabric line the walls, chandeliers hang from the ceilings. It’s a considerable step up from most rock venues. Looking around, I had a feeling that much of this was to make the most out of a typical rectangular box for sound quality. It turned out later that I was right – the sound was excellent even in our “off to the side” position, which we’d staked out earlier in the evening. When you find a spot that allows you something to lean on, you don’t easily give that up.

James takes the stage

James took the stage with a slow-building number, “Dream Thrum.” If you know the song, you may be thinking to yourself that this is no way to begin a show, but think about how that long climb into the climax of the song is so satisfying . . . and then intensify it ten-fold. It was a phenomenal way to start the show, and someone was kind enough to shoot video of the event:

Tim Booth

During “Say Something,” vocalist Tim Booth leapt into the audience and, about 15 feet from us, crawled up on the little wall that separated the sections, singing there for a few minutes. I captured a number of shots, the best of which I think is above (it’s an Iphone, people, not an SLR, but it captured something special, I think.) Just when I thought the moment was over . . .

Tim Booth, out for a visit

. . . Tim came closer, climbing up onto the rail by the soundboard – literally a few feet from us.


The band fed off the crowd’s unwavering energy, and the crowd fed off the band’s unflagging performance. It is rare that I have experience a concert without a single lull, but that’s what this show was – one big build to the climax and encore, which was like a massive celebration unlike anything I’ve seen at any concert before. The ecstatic energy overtook the stage during the final song, “Laid.” The band extended hands to elated fans, inviting them onto the stage to dance:

Afterwards, I got thinking about how incredible it was to see a band this long out of commission just jump right back into it. Not only were fans cheering their old favorites, they were equally ecstatic about the new material, and the band knew it – they played over half of the new album, Hey Ma, and the new songs stand up as equals with their best material. It’s not very often that a band reunites, writes incredibly strong material, and then goes on to actually focus a large amount of stage time to the material. That says a lot about the confidence they have not only in their abilities as musicians and songwriters, but also the confidence they have in their fans. It is part of what made the night so memorable and rewarding. Rather than being simply an excuse to tour, and a rehash of old music, it was a celebration of everything that made James special to everyone in the crowd – and, one could guess, to the reunited band on stage.

The setlist:

Dream Thrum
Oh My Heart
Ring The Bells
Come Home
Hey Ma
Say Something
Don’t Wait That Long
I Want To Go Home
Out To Get You
Born of Frustration
Sit Down

Top of the World


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