James + The Charlatans – Manchester Arena, Manchester (8th December 2018)

On Saturday 10th December 2016, James and The Charlatans shared the stage at a sold out Liverpool Echo Arena. The ‘One Night Only’ event brought together two remarkable sets from two bands both at the top of their game – so much so that back in July, the bands made the announcement from backstage of Latitude Festival 2018 that they’d be joining forces once again for a four date UK tour; with dates in Glasgow, London, Manchester and Leeds. We caught the gig at Manchester Arena on Saturday 8th December.

Kicking off the homecoming of epic proportions was The Charlatans, who released their thirteenth studio album ‘Different Days’ last year; flaunting special guests ranging from Johnny Marr to Stephen Morris. The psychedelic ‘Totally Eclipsing’ was first up, before the band dived into a triple whammy of hits; including ‘Let The Good Times Be Never Ending’, ‘One To Another’ and ‘Tellin’ Stories’. Boasting a well crafted set list that saw their newer material sit more than comfortably along classics such as ‘North Country Boy’ and ‘Weirdo’, the band particularly impressed with the groove ridden ‘Different Days’, with its spoken word outro morphing into the energetic ‘Plastic Machinery’; showcasing both Tim Burgess’ distinct vocals and truly striking guitar work from Mark Collins.

The last time that The Charlatans and James came together, James vocalist Tim Booth and Trumpeter Andy Diagram joined them onstage for a cover of ‘Rescue’ by Echo & The Bunnymen – this time around, Andy joined them onstage to pay tribute to the late Pete Shelley with a cover of ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ by Buzzcocks. The special guests didn’t end there and as Andy left the stage, Nick McCabe of The Verve entered for the anthemic duo of ‘Not Forgotten’ and ‘Sproston Green’ – sending the crowd wild one final time.

It’s been a busy year for James who embarked on a seven date tour of intimate UK venues back in May, in support of their ‘Better Than That’ EP that was released just a few months before their fifteenth album, ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’. James are a band in need of no introduction and crashed straight into the politically charged ‘Hank’, packing one hell of a punch with the help of several floor toms; used by Tim, Andy, bassist Jim Glennie and multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies. The frantic ‘Picture Of This Place’ followed, sound tracking Tim’s first visit to the crowd as he prowled across the platform in front of the barrier for its entirety, before returning to the stage for the uplifting ‘Ring The Bells’.  These days, Tim’s not the only one who visits the crowd and during the breakdown of ‘Sound’, Andy disappeared from the stage, reappearing on the stairs between two of the seated tiers, still playing every note and certainly making the fans up there smile – a reminder (not that we needed one) of just how integral Andy and his wandering trumpet antics are to James’ live shows.

Renowned for changing their sets up each night, James lived up to that reputation by surprising the entirety of the arena with the lesser played ‘Sit Down’, before launching into the pulsating ‘Living In Extraordinary Times’ masterpiece that is ‘Heads’, placing the spotlight on Jim as he conquered its punishing bass line. Though ‘Sit Down’ wasn’t the biggest surprise of the night and it was a treat to see the band revisit the thrilling (yet unreleased) 80’s track ‘Stutter’, as well as the sublime ‘Don’t Wait That Long’ from ‘Seven’, drawing attention once more to Andy’s soaring trumpet and the strength of Tim’s vocals. 

Highly skilled when it comes to writing a solid set list, James of course played the perfect mix of old and new, with the anthemic new track ‘Leviathan’ in particular taking pride of place as a highlight of the evening, showcasing a blizzard like keyboard riff from Mark Hunter and blowing the audiences minds as the band fell silent after Tim and Andy’s hushed vocals, before thrashing back into the track. One of the many things that make James a great live band is how they come together, combining their many talents and deliver moments of pure euphoria – with their stunning renditions of ‘Of Monsters And Heroes And Men’ and ‘Out To Get You’, complete with Saul on violin, being a prime example of their collaborative efforts. As always, Tim was awe-stricken at the sheer talent of his band mates and that was clear to see both on his face and in the way that he moved along to every beat of the improvised section towards the end of ‘Out To Get You’.

The purpose of the ‘Better Than That’ tour was to introduce fans to the new material and as impressive as it all was, the most memorable for the majority of people was the emotive and unifying ‘Many Faces’, which evoked sing-along’s that belonged in arenas and stadiums. Sitting in the encore, the track certainly lived up to most people’s expectations of it and it was somewhat breath-taking to see a sea of 18,000 people’s hands in the air in unison as they passionately sang the chorus back at the band. Just when you think a gig can’t get any better than that, the band pulled ‘Sometimes’ out of the bag for their final track, gaining the same reaction and resulting in Tim picking up a camera that was fixed to the stage and filming the crowd as they repeatedly sang along to lyrics that have sound-tracked their lives since the tracks release in 1993.

When we reviewed the original ‘One Night Only’ gig, we called it a very special evening that nobody would forget in a hurry, and we’d happily use those same words about this gig – an almighty homecoming from two bands that seem to be getting better and better as the years go on!