When James and Happy Mondays were first on the road together, back in 1988, they arrived at London’s much-missed Astoria. Now, 33 years on, their reunion is ‘upgraded’ to Wembley Arena, where the bands play for over three hours combined.
It feels as though very little has changed for Shaun Ryder and their merry men, for their music is rooted in that era – but is all the better for it. Their figurehead, wearing all black, is almost invisible on stage as the crowds flock in to fill the standing spaces. His presence is anything but, of course, and the banter with dancer Bez is a familiar mix of straight talking comedy. He freaks out at two pinpoint lights directed his way from the audience but still manages to deliver triumphant accounts of Dennis and Lois and 24 Hour Party People, the latter dedicated to the recently passed Andy Barker of 808 State.
The presence of Bez only aids the time travelling dimension. He lopes across the stage and back with trademark freedom, circling vocalist Rowetta with a repertoire of languid moves. Supported by a lithe rhythm section with grubby bass from Paul Ryder and excellent drumming from Gaz Whelan, Rowetta gets the crowd going, powering through a heady Kinky Afro and effortlessly filling the arena’s cavernous spaces for Step On. This song and Hallelujah are the crowning glories, joyful tracks that only get better with age.
James, of course, have been making music in the vast majority of those 33 years, releasing 16 studio albums in that time. Most bands would choose to rest under the comfort blanket of a hit-laden set, but not them, for as is their wont Tim Booth and his men pepper their set with recent material and early rarities alongside the big hitters. The new sounds have impressive stature, while the sound is bigger than ever, the band bolstered to a nine-piece by percussionist Debbie Knox-Hewson and guitarist / vocalist Chloe Alper. The stadium space Tim Booth always seemed destined to conquer is filled, but the band rarely overdoes the bluster or the pretence.
Booth’s perspective is different these days, the set’s transatlantic feel testament to his decade of living in California. The exultant Beautiful Beaches has a sting in the tale as he sings of recent wildfires, while Colours Of You, a celebration of inclusion and humanity in all its forms, rails against Trump and his ilk. These powerful points are hammered home through anthemic music surging to the point of euphoria. Lyrically it is a delicate balancing act; go too far down this route and Booth risks diluting the connection with his ‘home’ audience. It will be interesting to see how that aspect develops now he has moved back to the UK.
By their own admission a typical James setlist can feel like a game of pinball, giving the diehard fans – now a little silvery round the edges – the chance to revel in older classics such as Come Home, Gold Mother and Sound, while appreciating newer set staples Curse Curse and Nothing But Love, the band’s Righteous Brothers moment. An emotive Walk Like You is seamlessly integrated, as are two of their biggest 1990s favourites She’s A Star and Tomorrow.
Booth’s stamina is laudable, throwing his wiry frame and loose clothes into extended dance moves where he looks to be breaking free of his own body. The band’s attempts to reach the back of the arena with their sound are successful, the bigger space giving us the chance to appreciate the band members more. These include the probing guitar and violin of Saul Davies, the searing trumpet of Andy Diagram and the immensely fluid drumming of David Baynton-Power, with the two new additions slotting in seamlessly with extra percussion and guitar-based craft. The rhythms of James’s earlier songs link through to the Happy Mondays directly, creating shambling grooves that cannot be resisted, while the later stuff may be more portentous and earthbound but carries deeper, lasting feeling and lyrical power.
It is a triumphant night, so much so that James can leave fan favourite Sometimes at home and bring forth an encore trio of Beautiful Beaches, Laid and Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) to pierce even the coldest exterior. An hour later, with those songs still being sung on the Tube by fans, you can only marvel at the staying power these bands have. The musical spirit of Manchester burns more brightly than it ever has.
James played: Zero, Isabella, She’s a Star, Born of Frustration, All the Colours of You, Many Faces, Gold Mother, Honest Joe, Tomorrow, I Wanna Go Home, Nothing but Love, Interrogation, Hymn From A Village, Walk Like You, Curse Curse, Wherever It Takes Us, Come Home, Sit Down, Sound; Encores: Beautiful Beaches, Laid, Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)
Happy Mondays played: Kinky Afro, God’s Cop, Dennis and Lois, Loose Fit, Bob’s Yer Uncle, 24 Hour Party People, Hallelujah, Step On