Gig review: James and The Charlatans at First Direct Arena, Leeds

James played at First Direct Arena with The Charlatans.
James played at First Direct Arena with The Charlatans.
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Even before James take to the stage at Leeds’s First Direct Arena, their scathing British wit is out in full-force, in the form of a short, animated cartoon billed as a “public service film”.

In it, a narrator warns of the perils of fans electing to film whole segments of the show to the detriment of the enjoyment of others, with the consequences escalating from feline-and-canine cohabitation to eventual death. It’s a dry, absurdist skit but it certainly sets the tone for an evening of eclectic, genre-straddling indie gems and politically-barbed pop rock.

It’s to the latter that they initially cleave, with potent anger. For what could be dismissed out of hand by some as a 90s nostalgia lark-fest – James are heading up a double-bill that includes fellow contemporaries The Charlatans – it is initially a prickled, vivacious performance very much drawn from their state-of-the-world address and new record Living In Extraordinary Times, from the tribalistic, harsh drums that herald opening anti-president diatribe Hank in plumes of red-hued smoke through to the burbling electronica of Heads’ takedown of the American dream.

Sandwiched around a semi-stripped, piano-led rendition of the ubiquitous Sit Down, back into regular set-list rotation this winter following sporadic appearances only, it’s an arresting, calculating opening act, frontman Tim Booth barking down a megaphone for What’s It All About as he prowls the stage with the slow gait of a lion on the hunt.

Gradually though, it blooms into a more eclectic hopscotch through their evolution and history, starting with the moody baroque soundscapes of Top of the World. Booth tugs at the heartstrings with the shimmering Don’t Wait That Long and the lilting, celtic-tinged Of Monsters and Heroes and Men. The strident, euphoric Moving On sees him go crowd surfing, pursued by a rather handsy old lady trying to grab him like a Yakety Sax sketch.

They delve back to their 80s roots with a frantic post-punk storm through Stutter and get the whole venue on their feet for the baggy one-two of Sound and Come Home, with trumpet player Andy Diagram perched in the main seating tier for his solo on the former.

By the time a curfew-breaking encore finishes on the dual high of Getting Away With It (All Messed Up) and Sometimes, there’s nary a seated bottom in the house. As national institutions go, James are still up there with the brightest and the best.