Live Music + Gig Reviews

James @ South Facing, Crystal Palace Bowl, London

11 August 2023

Tim Booth and co dip into almost every part of their long career in a joyous and enterprising performance, with support from fellow Mancunians Happy Mondays

James (Photo: Elly Lucas)

James (Photo: Elly Lucas)

Madchester has resurfaced in south London 45 years on from its first incarnation. Opening the last weekend in this year’s South Facing festival in Crystal Palace Bowl were two bands who hark back to that period in Manchester when indie rock merged with indie dance in a haze of MDMA: James supported by Happy Mondays. The bands – both at one time signed to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records – have experienced their ups and downs, splits and reunions, changing personnel, not to mention drug addiction and even death – but have survived more or less intact to keep on entertaining audiences today.

A significant difference between them is that while Happy Mondays have only released one album since re-forming (2007’s disappointing Uncle Dysfunktional), after a hiatus in the early noughties James have gone on to record eight albums – and not only are they still producing interesting new music they are still evolving their sound, so the musical journey is ongoing. Happy Mondays continue to put on a good show but their record is stuck in a nostalgia groove from about 1990. The creative edge that James retain feeds into their more vibrant live performance.

Although Happy Mondays had been performing with their original line-up over the last ten years, sadly singer Shaun Ryder’s younger brother Paul – an excellent bass player – died last year so Dan Broad has taken his place. He, drummer Gary Whelan, guitarist Mark Day and soul diva Rowetta come on stage first and start jamming for a few minutes until Ryder and percussionist/dancer Bez join them to a warm ovation – though you do wonder at first if there has been some mishap. Their laid-back – if occasionally shambolic –style has always been a big part of the Happy Mondays’ appeal but though the easy-going vibe of the show gets a good response from the crowd the grooves definitely used to be sharper.

Their 45-minute set of just eight songs features the usual suspects from their first four albums in the late ’80s/early ’90s when they were in their Haçienda club prime, pioneering a mix of funk, acid house and psychedelia. They start with four songs from the best-known, genre-defining album Pills ’N’ Thrills And Bellyaches – a title that pretty much sums up the chemical excesses of the band that led to their implosion after riding high. The intoxicating vibe of Kinky Afro has some nice jangly guitar work from Day, while Loose Fit is still a baggy dance anthem.

The insistent drum beat of 24 Hour Party People (after which the 2002 film about the anarchic Manchester music scene in the 80s is named) leads on to the iconic Step On (transformed from the original 1971 John Kongos psychedelic song) with its catchy piano riff and Rowetta’s soaring vocals. It’s noticeable that she provides the vocal power on stage during the show (with Ryder somewhat croaky), as well as a colourful, swaying presence, while the indefatigable Bez gees up the crowd with his distinctively twisty dance moves. The static Ryder, a stocky figure with a baseball cap covering his bald head, is not so much a front man as a good-humoured MC engaging in somewhat incoherent banter between songs.

At 63, also shaven-headed, wearing a long beanie and Eastern, New Age-style clothing, Tim Booth may actually be two years older than Ryder but he seems far younger and more dynamic, while his band James are in terrific, versatile form. Earlier in the summer they released their 17th studio album Be Opened By The Wonderful – it may contain only one new song but the other 19 tracks sound completely different as rearranged for a 22-strong orchestra and eight-person choir, which the band recently performed with as part of their “James Lasted” tour celebrating their four decades years in the business. At Crystal Palace, though, James are down to a mere nine on stage.

Their joyous and enterprising one-and-a-half-hour performance dips into almost every part of their long career, including little-known tracks early on as well as big hitters later, showing how the band like to stretch themselves. Their first song Johnny Yen goes back to their first album Stutter in 1986, with Andy Diagram (trumpet) and Saul Davies (violin) performing frenzied solos. There are other deep dives into the early back catalogue with the bouncy, percussive Hymn From A Village and the acoustic, folky Medieval with its military drumbeat. Their most recent original album All The Colours Of You is represented by a couple of tracks, in a set spanning 35 years.

From their 1990 breakthrough baggy album Gold Mother, Come Home has the crowd singing along as does their biggest hit Sit Down, with Booth conducting everyone in an extended a capella chorus. He dedicates it to the memory of their former collaborator Sinéad O’Connor, paying tribute to her whistleblowing in particular. Booth, who has entertained with frenzied whirling dervish dancing and constantly engaged closely with the audience at the front, goes one step further during Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) as he surfs on the crowd. James close with the gospel-like Sometimes with the chorus “Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul” bringing everyone together at the end of the evening.

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James @ South Facing, Crystal Palace Bowl, London
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